From South African street foods to sweet curries, find out why the top South African dishes are renown as South Africa’s ‘rainbow cuisine’.
South African cooking has so many different influences: African, Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, Malaysian, Indian, Chinese, Indonesian – no wonder it’s been called the ‘rainbow cuisine’. Many of these influences can been seen in this list of top 10 foods in South Africa.
The combination of the indigenous African population and centuries of immigration – traders, pioneers and their slaves – has given South Africa one of the world’s most exciting and varied cuisines. Here is some of the top South African cuisine you have in store, with recipes to make them at home.
All over South Africa you can find strips of what looks like dark old leather that are eaten as a snack – this is the famous biltong. Biltong is a thinly sliced, tough and salty air-dried meat, most often beef or game like springbok, rather like beef jerky. You will also find droewors, air-dried sausages. Indigenous African peoples use to preserve meat by curing it with salt and drying in the air; 17th-century European settlers added vinegar, saltpetre and spices to the mix and today’s biltong evolved meat preservation processes of 19th-century pioneers in the days before refrigeration.
Bobotie is sometimes called the national dish of South Africa. The dish originates from Indonesian slaves who were brought to South Africa by the Dutch East India company in the 17th century. Bobotie is made from spiced minced meat and dried fruit with an egg and milk topping which is baked in the oven until it’s set – a bit like Greek moussaka. Eat bobotie with yellow rice, some fruit chutney, sliced banana and a sprinkling of coconut.
This is South African fast food – and it has nothing to do with rabbits. It’s a quarter or a half a loaf of white bread, hollowed out and filled with a hot and spicy meat or vegetable curry (or anything else that takes your fancy). Bunny chow originated in the city of Durban, some say when migrant Indian labourers working in sugar cane plantations had to take their food into the fields. You can grab bunny chow as a takeaway all over South Africa but the very best can be found in Durban – eat it with your hands!
Cape Malay curry
When the Dutch and French settlers came to Cape Town in the 17th century they brought with them slaves from Indonesia to work on their lands. These slaves used their own spices and traditional cooking techniques with local African ingredients to create aromatic curries and stews – spicy but not fiery, and sweet – now known as Cape Malay curry. There are a great many variations.
Another South African speciality, from the Western Cape, is the syrup-covered doughnut called thekoeksister. The name comes from the Dutch koekje – say it out loud and you’ll hear what it means: ‘cookie’.Koeksisters are usually twisted or braided and there are two types: the Cape Malay which is spicier and covered with dried coconut; the Afrikaner is crispier and has more syrup. Both are crunchy and sticky on the outside, and moist and syrupy on the inside.
This delicious baked egg custard tart is a pastry case filled with a fluffy mixture of eggs, milk and sugar, sometimes thickened with flour. It’s an Afrikaan recipe with Dutch influences. Enjoy your melktert with a dusting of cinnamon after a meal as a dessert or as a treat with a cup of coffee.
Mala mogodu is one traditional African dish which might not sound appealing at first glance: it’s stewed tripe – animal intestines (mala) and stomach lining (mogodu) – and considered a true South African delicacy. It’s often eaten lightly curried and accompanied by new potatoes and fried onions. Other South African culinary delights you might not have tried are protein-packed, dried or fried mopane worms in tomato sauce and cooked chicken feet and heads called ‘walkie-talkies’.
This is South African comfort food at its sweet and sticky best: malva pudding. Malva pudding originated with the Cape Dutch settlers and is a spongy cake-type pudding made with sugar, eggs, flour, butter and apricot jam. As soon as it’s out of the oven, a hot sweet and creamy sauce is poured over the top of the pudding. Malva pudding is often served up after Sunday lunch in South Africa and can be enjoyed with custard, ice cream, whipped cream, brandy butter, crème anglaise or whatever your choice.
Potjiekos or ‘little pot food’ is an Afrikaan term to describe food cooked in layers in a traditional three-legged cast iron pot (a potjie) but essentially it’s a slow cooked meat and vegetable stew. Potjiekos can be served with pap (maize porridge), umngqusho (samp and beans), morogo (wild spinach), amadombolo (dumplings) and pot-baked bread (potbrood) or steamed bread (ujeqe).
Shisa nyama means ‘burn the meat’ in Zulu and means meat – steak, chicken, kebabs and boerewors (spicy ‘farmer’s sausage’ which is coiled up like a snake) – cooked over the fiercely hot wood fires of a braai(barbeque). Eat with chakalaka (a spicy tomato and bean relish) and pap (a white corn maize porridge rather like the US grits).