Last updated: August 2020
Stunning landscapes, diverse wildlife, dramatic mountain ranges and attractive beaches make South Africa a very inviting holiday destination. The country is also a melting pot of a great diversity of cultures which is why it’s fondly nicknamed ‘The Rainbow Nation’, and it’s this cultural diversity which has had a very strong influence on South African food over the centuries. This in turn has given traditional South African dishes very unique and interesting flavours.
All in all, I can say that South Africa has amazing cuisine with almost limitless variations in tastes as well as the ways in which dishes are prepared.
17 Traditional South African dishes you have to try
The food culture in South Africa is really big and plays a very important part in South African tourism and local daily life. This is why you should take the time to indulge yourself in South African food culture in order to learn more about the rich diversity of the land itself that provides the food and how together with the local people it all influences the various flavours.
When visiting South Africa there are many traditional food dishes one should try, however, there are a few that will stand out and which you will really need to try before you go home.
So in order to help you discover the food in South Africa, I have compiled this food guide with an insight into South African cuisine as well as local produce that can sometimes only be found in this part of the world. And if you are really adventurous and brave enough, you might want to try Mopane Worms, which is a very traditional South African food that is more popular in the rural areas.
Popular South African food
South African Boerewors
Boerewors is a typical South African sausage often packed as a continuous spiral. The word is derived from Dutch and means ‘farmers sausage’. It is made from lean minced meat, usually beef, but can also be made from game meat or pork or a combination of various meats. What makes Boerewors so special is the use of a blend of authentic flavours and spices, like nutmeg, coriander, black pepper and cloves mixed in with the meat. It comes with so many different variations and flavours. Basically, one can say that no two South African boerewors’s taste the same. It is very popular at any South African braai, and is a common street food at festivals and sports events.
Bobotie or Cape Malay Curry
Traditionally, Bobotie is an Indonesian dish that was probably brought to South Africa by the Dutch. It consists of a sweet and spicy mince curry topped with an egg mixture. Nowadays, there are various recipes and ways to prepare South African bobotie. In general, the main ingredients are bay leaves, some dried fruit (I always use raisins), fruit chutney and curry powder. The sweetness of the chutney and dried fruit contrasts very nicely with the tangy flavour of the curry powder. Typically it is served with yellow basmati rice and some sambals.
Bobotie is real traditional food in South Africa and very popular. I have cooked it many times for tourists and it is always one of the highlights of the trip. It is also called a ‘Cape Malay curry’ or ‘Cape Malay bobotie’ because when it was taken to South Africa it was adopted by the Cape Malay community who mainly live in Cape Town. Bobotie has become a signature dish in South Africa, mixing local and exotic flavours.
Bunny Chow originates from Durban, which is on the east coast of South Africa. It was created by the large Indian immigrant population in the Durban area and served for lunch. A Bunny Chow has nothing to do with a rabbit but consists of a hollowed out quarter or half loaf of bread filled up with a tasty Indian curry made from beans or meat (mutton, beef or chicken). The bread is used as a dish to hold the curry, which is then broken off into small pieces and used to dip in the curry.
Nowadays, Bunny Chow has become very popular around South Africa as a staple food of the country and is even booming in the United Kingdom.
Potjiekos is another traditional and popular South African food. Potjiekos means ‘food out of a pot’, or just ‘pot food’. It is a stew cooked in layers but not stirred in a three legged cast iron pot over an open fire. The whole idea of this way of preparation is slow cooking. Potjiekos may take up to three hours to cook and sometimes even more, depending on the meat one is using, and the size of the pot. One single pot can be big enough to feed up to 100 people and take 24 hours to cook.
Any type of meat, fish or vegetables can be used for this dish. It’s a fun way of cooking, where everyone sits around the fire and pot, and has a drink, or 2 or 3, until the food is ready.
I love cooking in a potjie pot since there is so much opportunity for variation and so many flavours one can try out. It’s a very relaxing way of cooking where everyone enjoys the aromas coming out the pot while socialising and having a drink together.
The South African Braai
A braai is the South African answer to a barbecue. However, it’s more than just grilling on coals, a South African braai is a way of life. Almost every South African loves to braai, it’s a very social activity, but you need to beware that the whole ritual comes with some rules.
Generally, the men are in charge of the braai and all gather around the fire, while the women are preparing the rest of the food in the kitchen. Any type of meat can be used; boerewors, beef steak, pork chops, game meat/venison and lamb. Very nice on any braai is Karoo Lamb, which has a very authentic South African flavour.
It’s so popular that they even proclaimed a National Braai Day on the 24th of September, claiming every South African should braai on that day. (Heritage Day)
Snoek is a fish that is caught off the coast of the Western and Eastern Cape. It’s a type of snake mackerel and can be eaten in various ways. Fresh Snoek fish however is perfect to braai on an open grill. The traditional way to prepare it is with apricot jam or chutney and wrapped in aluminium foil. It’s also common to grill the fish with a mix of garlic butter, rosemary and lemon. The fish has so much flavour and is really delicious to eat.
South African chakalaka is a spicy vegetable relish made primarily with carrots, onions, peppers, chillies, garlic and curry powder. It is believed to originate from Johannesburg, created by the miners as a sauce to have with their pap (maize meal). Nowadays this South African dish is widely eaten throughout the whole country. Chakalaka is often served to accompany pap and meat or as a side dish with a South African braai. Apart from the main ingredients, chakalaka can also be made with beans, butternut or cabbage. In any case, expect most chakalaka sauces to range from spicy to very hot, so it might be an idea to keep a toilet roll in the fridge, or freezer. You have been warned.
Biltong and Droëwors
The Dutch settlers (Voortrekkers) needed a way to preserve meat during their long journey through South Africa to find new land. Preserving meat was key to their survival during those times in the early 19th century. The meat was air-dried and various spices, like coriander, vinegar, black pepper and salt were applied.
Nowadays both biltong and droëwors, which is a dried version of the South African boerewors, are the most popular padkos (road trip snacks) you can find in South Africa. Beef is the most popular meat for Biltong, but you can find Biltong made from almost any kind of game meat, such as Kudu, Ostrich or Springbok. In fact, I’ve even tried Shark biltong once and I must say, it did not taste bad at all. Ask any non-vegetarian South African who lives abroad what SA food they miss the most and the vast majority will say biltong.
Gem squash is a popular vegetable and very common in South Africa. It has the appearance of a round zucchini, about the size of an apple, but it is a variety from the summer squash. The skin is dark green, fairly thick and too hard to eat, even after boiling. The flesh inside is yellow coloured and rather dense but becomes nice and soft and sweet after cooking. A gem squash is usually served cut in halves with the seeds removed and is best eaten using a spoon with either just some melted butter or it can be stuffed with a large variety of ingredients, like chakalaka, sweet corn or cheese. You should definitely try them on your visit to South Africa since they seem to be hard to find elsewhere in the world.
Vetkoek (which means ‘Fat Cake’ or ‘Oily Cake’ in Afrikaans) is a traditional deep fried pastry bun. Vetkoek is often eaten as breakfast or afternoon tea with just some sugar or jam. However, they can also be eaten with a savoury filling. The most common filling I have encountered is curried mince or boerewors. It’s so delicious. I cannot walk past a shop and not buy one, especially with the curry mince filling.
Pap (maize porridge)
Mielie meal or mielie pap is a staple food in quite a lot of African countries. Even though it is known in each country under a different name and is prepared slightly differently, the main ingredient is still the same; corn. Pap, as it’s called in South Africa, is prepared with maize meal, which is similar to Italian polenta. The maize meal is added to boiling water and cooked into a porridge or pap (which is Afrikaans for porridge).
The flavour of pap itself is pretty bland, so it is normally served with a tomato onion relish, or meat stew with a lot of sauce. The pap is mostly eaten by hand. A small piece is taken off, rolled in a ball and used to mop up the sauce. A much drier variation of pap is ‘krummel pap’, (crumbed pap) which is often served as a side dish with a South African braai.
South Africa has the best of both worlds when it comes to oysters. South Africa is renowned for both its cultivated and wild picked oysters. Two common oyster species are the Cape Rock oyster and the Pacific oyster, the latter being the one that is usually cultivated. The Cape Rock oyster occurs naturally on the rocky reefs along the South African coastline, has a heavy shell and doesn’t grow very fast so is therefore not very good for commercial cultivation.
Served with a dash of fresh lemon, a drop of Tabasco hot sauce or black pepper, they are just absolutely a delight to eat. Each year, Knysna, a town on the famous Garden Route, holds the Knysna Oyster festival in July with oysters coming from the Knysna lagoon.
Every good braai or barbecue needs a nice piece of bread to go with all the salads and meat or fish. Roosterkoek literally means grilled cake in Afrikaans. And that’s basically what they are, pieces of dough cooked on a grid directly over the fire or braai. The bread absorbs the smoky flavour of the fire, especially when grilling them directly after the meat. They can be served as is, or cut open and filled with butter, jam or cheese.
What can be more local than using local ingredients in a dish? Waterblommetjies, also known as Cape pondweed or Aponogeton Distachyos by their scientific name are small water flowers that are harvested in the dams and marshes in the Western Cape province. They are part of an indigenous plant which only flourishes in the winter months. So you can only eat them during the months of July and August.
Waterblommetjies Bredie is a delicious winter time stew made with lamb meat and the water flowers. The texture of the waterblommetjies is somewhat like artichoke leaves but tastes more like green beans. It’s definitely something to try in one of the many restaurants in the Western Cape. They really are special to eat and something completely different and authentic when it comes to real South African cuisine.
South African Desserts
Melktert or Milktart
I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of deserts at all. Most sweet flavours will not tantalise my tastebuds. However, I will always accept a piece of melktert. It’s the Dutch answer to the traditional custard tart. It’s more milky than the Dutch version and is sprinkled with lot’s of cinnamon. It’s really delicious.
Malva Pudding (Malva Poeding)
Malva Pudding is undoubtedly the most famous South African dessert. It’s a sweet and sticky, spongy-textured cake which is caramelized and covered with a delicious cream sauce. What gives Malva pudding its characteristic flavour is the addition of apricot jam and vinegar. It is best eaten warm straight out of the oven. This typical South African dessert is served in a whole range of restaurants across the country.
Koeksisters (Afrikaans for cake sisters) is a very sweet crispy pastry made of dough, deep fried in oil, and afterwards soaked in a sticky syrup. They are usually very recognisable by their golden colour and long braided shape. If you have a sweet tooth, you will love koeksisters as they consist of about 95% sugar.
What was your most favourite South African dish? Which one would you definitely add to this list?
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