With 11 official languages, countless peoples and a geography that includes everything from mountain ranges to beaches, South Africa is nothing if not diverse. It’s this rich tapestry that has resulted in the country’s broad culinary landscape, with fresh seafood served up alongside boerewors (sausage), pap (maize porridge) and Durban’s famous curries. Here, we’ve compiled a guide to South Africa’s most mouth-watering foods, so you can easily navigate a South African menu.
Peppered with lots of influences, from Dutch to French, from English to Indian, it’d be hard to call South African cuisine particularly coherent. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t themes. One love that unites everyone is meat. Oddly, perhaps, this hasn’t created a carnivorous street-food culture along the lines of the kebab in Turkey or kibbeh in Lebanon. It does, however, make braai the most cherished form of cooking in the country.
Occupying a central position in Australian society, a braai offers the opportunity for families, friends or even whole villages to socialise. And the main ingredients for conversation, laughter and fun tends to be large cuts of lamb, circles of boerewors and thick chunks of steak – with potatoes, onions and squash (thrown, wrapped in foil, into the fire) as an accompaniment.
The beauty of South African cuisine is in its simplicity – one pot cooking is embraced in the form of potjiekos. Translating to ‘small pot food’, it’s a cauldron of stew packed with meaty morsels, vegetables like carrots or cauliflower, plus potatoes or rice.
One of the region’s most beloved snacks – whose popularity has spread globally as well – is biltong; a dried, cured spiced meat such as beef or game. Similar to American jerky, it’s sliced into strips following the grain of the muscle giving it a tasty chew. Favoured too is droëwors, a dried version of the aforementioned boerewors sausage.
Whilst South African food is undoubtedly delicious, it’s often a tough call to argue in favour of its health benefits. Boerekos (or “farmer’s food”) tends to take Anglophone dishes and stretch them to rich, sumptuous, butter and sugar-laden extremes. To give two examples, koeksisters (doughnuts caked into syrup) and melktert (custard tart caked in sugars) make American treats look like child’s-play.
However, there are healthier options available. Many of the most popular revolve around the Asian and Madagascan curries. Known as Cape Malay food, bobotie (a mince dish served under a savoury custard) and bredie (lamb stew) are favourites, especially in Durban. Bunny Chow (usually shortened to just “bunny”), in which a hollowed-out loaf of freshly-baked bread is filled with a rich and spicy curry is the esteemed product of an Indian community that’s the world’s largest outside of India. Watch how you eat it though, the turmeric leaves a dusty, yellow-brick road wherever it goes!
Most South Africans do their drinking at restaurants. South African restaurants are much cheaper than their Western counterparts, however, and they’re full of the best wines money can buy. From top Chenin Blanc to local bubbles, the country has a 350-year history behind it, making short shrift of its “New World” label.
Those who want to try the traditional African staples that pepper menus everywhere should look out for several terms. Pap is a maize porridge customised with anything the chef cares to throw in; morogo (a native spinach) is often braised with butter, onions and tomatoes; and finally, if you see a spicy relish served with your meal, you’re most likely sampling chakalaka, which packs chilli, vinegar, onion, peppers and carrots in eye-watering combinations.