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May 10, 2014

South African cuisine

by Helene van den Berg

South African food is called “rainbow cuisine”, as it has had a variety of multicultural sources and stages. It can be divided generalized as:

  • Cookery practiced by indigenous people of Africa- the Sotho- and Nguni-speaking people.
  • Colonial cookery that emerged from the colonial period of white European people of Dutch, German, French, Italian, Greek and British descent and their Indo-Asian slaves/servants – e.g. Cape Malay people, which has many characteristics of Indonesia and cooking styles of neighbouring cultures such as Portuguese Mozambique.

In the precolonial period, indigenous food included a wide range of foods from wild plants like fruits, nuts, bulbs, leaves and hunted wild game. Domestic cattle and grain crops were introduced by Bantu speakers and Khoisan groups. The precolonial diet consisted of cooked sorghum (later maize), fermented milk and roasted meat of sheep, goats, game; Beef was considered a high status meat. The ribs of cattle were so prized that they were offered to the chief of the village.

The daily food of South African families can be traced back to the indigenous foods that their ancestors ate. A typical meal in a Bantu-speaking household is a stiff porridge of maize meal (“pap”) with a stewed meat gravy. Their vegetables are pumpkin, beans and rice and shredded cabbage and white potatoes cooked with butter (originated from Irish immigrants).

For many South Africans meat is the center of any meal. The Khoisan ate roasted meat and dried meat for later use. Today, this tradition is reflected in the common South African’s love of barbeque (“braai” with “pap and vleis”) and dried meat (“biltong”). For weddings, initiations Bantu-families will buy a live animal and slaughter it at home and then prepare a large meal for the community. Spilling the blood of the animal on the ground pleases deceased ancestors. On holiday weekends, entrepreneurs will set up pens of live animals along the main road of town ships (sheep and goats) for families to purchase, slaughter, cook and eat. Vegetarianism is met with puzzlement among Black South Africans.

Popular foods in modern South Africa are chicken, lime, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, onions and many spices.

South Africa was settled from the seventeenth century onwards by colonists from Portugal, Netherlands, Germany, France and the UK, who brought European cookery styles with them. The Afrikaners have their succulent potjiekos, tamatiebredie, or stews of lamb and mutton with tomato and onion sauce, with or without rice. Dutch contributed koeksisters, malva pudding and milktart (“melktert”). French Hugenots brought wines as well as traditional recipes. During the pioneering days of the 17th century, new foods such as biltong, droewors and rusks evolved locally out of necessity.

The Cape Dutch cookery style (nutmeg, allspice, chili peppers) is due to the slaves brought by the Dutch East India Company from Bengal, Java and Malaysia. The Cape Malay influence has brought spicy curries, sambals, pickled fish and a variety of fish stews.

Bobotie, South Africa’s national dish, has Cape Malay origins. It consists of spiced minced meat, raisins, curry powder, baked with egg-based topping, served with yellow rice, sambals, banana slices and chutney

The recipe originates from the Dutch East India Company colonies in Batavia, with the name derived from the Indonesian bobotok.

Indian labourers were brought to South Africa in the 19th century. They brought curried dishes (with lemon juice), chutney, samosa etc. Bunny chow is a popular dish from Durban, where there is a large Indian community.

Beer has been an important beverage in South Africa for hundreds of years among indigenous people and then the Europeans brought their own beer. When South Africa’s mines were developed, the traditional Black South Africans women would brew (unfiltered and cloudy) and sell it to the labor force at informal taverns (“shebeens”).

Milk and milk products are very prominent in the traditional Black South African diet. Because milk cows allowed women to wean their children early and become fertile more quickly, the Sotho-Tswana had a saying “cattle beget children”. In the absence of refrigeration, soured milk (like yoghurt), was a dietary mainstay. Today, one will find a variety of milk products in supermarkets, like sour milk, sour cream etc.

Today South Africans has a significant “eating out” culture, with home grown chain restaurants (e.g.Spur) and restaurants with other cuisines, such as Moroccan, Chinese, West African, Japanese etc. Unfortunately, the Western culture of easy, convenient, low-priced, high-carb, empty-calorie food, are available at fast food restaurants like Wimpy and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Typical South African foods and dishes:

  • Amasi (sour milk)
  • Biryani
  • Biltong (dried meat)
  • Bobotie
  • Boerewors (barbecued sausage)
  • Bunny chow – curry stuffed in a hollowed-out loaf of bread
  • Chakalaka, a spicy vegetable relish
  • Blatjang (chutney/ sweet sauce made from fruit poured over meat)
  • Frikkadelle (meatballs)
  • Gatsby – long roll with fillings of hot chips/polony/chicken)
  • Gesmoorde vis – cod with potatoes and tomatoes served with apricot jam
  • Hoenderpastei (chicken pie)
  • Isidudu (pumpkin pap)
  • Koeksister – deep-fried, sweet twisted pastries
  • Mageu (fermented mealie pap)
  • Malva pudding (apricot pudding)
  • Mashonzha (made from mopane worm)
  • Melktert (milk tart)
  • Melkkos (milk food, a dessert)
  • Mealie-bread (sweetcorn baked bread)
  • Phutu pap (mealie-meal)Ostrich
  • Pampoenkoekies (pumpkin fritters)
  • Potbrood (savoury bread baked over coals)
  • Potjiekos (a traditional Afrikaans stew, made with meat and vegetables and cooked over coals in cast-iron pots)
  • Rusks (dry biscuit dunked in coffee)
  • Skilpadjies (lamb’s liver wrapped in netvet, barbecued over hot coals)
  • Vetkoek (deep-fried dough balls, stuffed with meat or jam)
  • Tomato bredie (lamb and tomato stew)
  • Umngqusho (white maize and sugar beans, a staple food of the Xhosa people)
  • Waterblommetjie bredie (meat stewed with the flower of Cape pondweed)
  • Walkie talkies (grilled/deep-fried chicken heads and feet, sold in townships)



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