When travelling, we love to sample the local cuisine wherever we are. It gives us insight into the local traditions, customs and tastes, and exposes our palates to new dishes. Similarly, visitors to South Africa might wonder what South African foods they should be aware of when visiting our rainbow nation.
South Africa is a melting pot of cultures and its cuisine reflects this. Our food is difficult to categorise. Some dishes are widely eaten by the majority of South Africans while others are more popular within certain communities. Our cooking is influenced, inter alia, by Dutch, Portuguese, Indian, Malaysian and African cuisine. It may not be as well-known as Italian or Indian food but we do have a few culinary gems that are “baie lekker” (meaning “very tasty” in Afrikaans). We do great fusion food too!
A braai is a Southern African tradition. The word means “barbecue” or “roast” in Afrikaans. Braais originated with the Afrikaner people, but these days most South Africans have one regularly. More than a meal, it is a social experience as family and friends gather around and chat, while the food is cooked on a wood or charcoal fire.
South Africans traditionally love meat and meats that are commonly braaied include sausages, boerewors, lamb chops, steak and chicken. However, braais are not restricted to meat. Other foods that are regularly braaied include potatoes, corn on the cob, marshmallows and braaibroodjies – grilled cheese, tomato and onion sandwiches made on the braai. The braaied food is normally served with sides like salads, garlic bread, pap and tomato chutney.
Braais are known as Shisa Nyama in the townships. The Zulu phrase literally means to “burn meat”.
Potjiekos (small-pot food) is food that is slow-cooked over a fire in a 3-legged cast iron pot called a potjie. It originated with the Voortrekkers in the 1800s and has been part of South African culture since. Almost anything can be cooked in a potjie, and the resulting dish is delicious and flavourful. My personal favourite is chicken curry. Like braais, potjiekos gatherings are also social events.
3. Pap and chakalaka
Pap (pronounced pup) is the staple food for many South Africans, the way rice is in many parts of Asia. It is a starchy porridge-style dish made from a type of maize known as mielies, which was originally brought by the Portuguese to Africa. It can be eaten for breakfast with milk and sugar or as part of a main meal with a vegetable or meat dish. It is often eaten with chakalaka, a spicy vegetable relish.
4. Bunny chow
Before you get alarmed, please note that no rabbits were harmed in the making of any bunny chow.
There are many theories as to the origin of the humble Bunny Chow. However, there is consensus that it was conceived in the Indian community of Durban during the apartheid area (circa 1940’s). People of colour were not allowed to frequent restaurants during that period so ingenious restaurant owners started using hollowed loaves of bread as take-out containers for their spicy curries – made of beans, vegetables or meat – and giving it to customers discreetly through the back doors.
The popularity of the bunny chow has spread far and wide and I even saw a bunny chow restaurant in London, United Kingdom.
How did the bunny chow get its name? It is believed to have been derived from the word “Bania” which was the term by which the Indian merchants who sold the curries were known as.
A Gatsby is a family-sized sandwich that originated in the Cape Flats region of Cape Town in 1976. A local fish and chips shop owner had to feed a group of laborers. Since he had run out of fish, he improvised with whatever he had left and filled a Portuguese loaf with chips (French fries), polony and achar (hot Indian pickle). The huge sandwich was then divided among the labourers. These days it is served in a foot-long loaf, and filled with fried fish, chicken, masala steak, eggs, and/or sausages.
Where did the name come from? The Great Gatsby movie (the original) was being screened in cinemas at the time and the word Gatsby was used by one of the labourers to describe the sandwich as a winning dish. According to UrbanDictionary.com, Gatsby means “excessively extravagant, cool, stylish”.
A kota is similar to a bunny chow in that it also consists of a quarter loaf (kota) of bread which is hollowed out and then refilled However, whereas a bunny chow has a curry filling, the kota loaf is stuffed with a combination of processed meats like polony, viennas, and Russian sausages, as well as achar, deep-fried chips, egg, and cheese. To the health-conscious, it may sound like a heart attack on a plate (or in this case, a quarter loaf), but it does rate high up in the popularity stakes.
Did you know that Nando’s, which specialises in Portuguese-African food and is one of the most popular food franchises in the world, was started in South Africa in 1987. There are over 300 stores in South Africa, so you don’t have to look far to find one here.
Vetkoek (fat cake) is a popular fried yeast dough eaten as a snack. It is usually filled with a savoury filling like mince curry or a sweet filling like jam. It also has its origins with the Dutch settlers who preferred deep frying their dough balls – as it was easier to make and lasted longer than traditional bread.
You’re most likely to find Bobotie in Cape Town as it is considered to be a typical Cape Malay dish. The original bobotie recipe is believed to have come from Indonesia and adapted with local ingredients. Great comfort food, it consists of spicy, aromatic minced meat baked with raisins, apricots and almonds and covered with an egg-based topping. It is usually served with yellow rice. Bobotie is considered to be one of South Africa’s national dishes and apparently it was one of Nelson Mandela’s favourite foods too.
9. Milk tart
This simple but delicious dessert, also known as melktert, consists of a pastry crust, baked with a creamy custard filling and dusted with cinnamon. First made in South Africa by the Dutch settlers in the 17th century, it is found in most local bakeries and supermarkets these days. Milk tart is so honoured that it even has its own National Day on 27th February!
This sweet treat consists of deep-fried dough soaked in syrup. Another dish originating from the Dutch settlers, it now comes in two varieties. The Afrikaans braided version is crispy on the outside and very syrupy on the inside, and the Cape Malay version is soft and spicy, covered in coconut and usually unbraided. We celebrate National Koeksister Day on 23 June.
Where did the name come from? There are two theories as to the origin of the name. The word “koek” means cake in both. “Sister” either refers to sisters making them or it is derived from a Dutch word meaning “sizzle” which refers to the sizzling sound made when the dough is being fried.
11. Malva pudding
Malva Pudding is another iconic South African dessert but its origins are not as historic as the previous two. It is believed to have been created by a South African woman called Maggie Pepler, who used to make it for a restaurant in the Cape Winelands in the 1970s. This apricot flavoured sponge cake is served with custard or ice cream. These days, it is even being served in restaurants in New York and Dubai.
Biltong is a form of meat that has been cured, marinated and dried. Originating in Southern Africa, it can be made from beef or game, like kudu, ostrich or springbok. Biltong comes in many flavours, and can be made in strips of varying thickness or flat pieces.
The first versions of biltong were created by the indigenous people of Southern Africa, such as the Khoikhoi. They preserved meat by cutting it into strips, curing it with salt, and hanging it up to dry. When the European settlers arrived in Southern Africa, they improved the curing process by using vinegar and more spices. Biltong can be found in supermarkets, butcheries, and department stores across South Africa and make great snacks (especially on road trips) and gifts.
There is a common misconception that biltong is the same as beef jerky but they differ in ingredients, texture, flavour, and the method of production,
13. Rooibos Tea (Red bush tea)
Although this is a drink, not a food, I had to include it. Rooibos Tea is a herbal tea made from the rooibos plant (Aspalathus linearis) of the Fabaceae plant family. Indigenous to South Africa’s West Coast region, it is exported to more than 30 countries around the world. The needle-like leaves are oxidised, which gives them the red colour from which the name “red bush” is derived.
Rooibos tea is caffeine-free, rich in antioxidants and low in tannins making it quite a healthy beverage. Its numerous health benefits include boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure, strengthening bones, alleviating allergies and much more. It tastes great hot or cold and makes a great gift for family and friends in other countries.
These are some of the popular South African foods. On a side note, I haven’t come across many South African restaurants on my international travels, but The Habtoor Grand Resort in Dubai has a South African steakhouse, which also serves bunny chows, potjies, boerewors, milk tart and malva pudding.
What are your favourite South African foods ? Which one of these would you like to try?