South Africa isn’t best known for its food but it should be. There is an incredibly rich culinary tradition here, homegrown in Africa, born out of the necessities of life in the bush, brought in by the Indians and Indonesians, the Dutch, British, Germans and Huguenots, and Portuguese. Add to that a generous climate, fertile soil and seas that provide fabulous ingredients in abundance and you are ready to feast. Be prepared for generous proportions and huge quantities of meat, although you can get great seafood and there are usually vegetarian options available.
Then there is just the little matter of understanding what you are eating. The following list will help. It is by no means definitive but covers a few of the key terms you need to know before embarking on a foody tour of South Africa. It’s amazing how many of them start with ‘b’!
biltong – similar to beef jerky. Sun-dried salted and spiced meat which can be from beef, but may be game meats such as eland, kudu or ostrich. Originally made by the Voertrekkers as a way of preserving meat during their long hot trek across country.
Eaten as a snack or, in this gourmet era, shaved onto dishes as a flavour enhancer.
boerewoes – highly spiced farm sausages, from the Afrikaans tradition, often mixing pork, mutton and beef and seasoning the meat with coriander, ginger, mace, cloves, nutmeg, thyme, fennel, rosemary, mint, and red wine or vinegar.
braai/braaivleis (pronounced breye-flase; literally ‘roasted meat’) – the barbecue. Even more important to white South Africans than to Americans and elevated to an art form.
bobotie – officially the national dish, a mild Cape Malay curry with ground beef, almonds, sultanas, and topped with an egg custard. Traditionally served with a pilaf rice and sambals that might include chopped tomatoes, coconut, banana, nuts and chutney and other sprinkly bits, it is delicious either hot or cold.
bunny chow – a Durban speciality, basically half a loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with curry: beef, lamb, chicken or vegetarian. Durban has a huge Indian population and is curry capital of South Africa.
droewors – another spiced sausage. Basically a thin version of boerewors sundried like biltong, but generally without the pork as that doesn’t keep well.
frikkadels – somewhere between a small hamburger and a meatball, often seasoned with nutmeg and coriander.
koeksisters – the Afrikaaners have sweet teeth, often candying vegetables. This, the deep fried cousin of the doughnut, drenched in fat and syrup, is about the most artery-hardening, sinfully delicious snack in the country. Indulge cautiously.
mashonzha – mopane worms. A traditional black delicacy but something of an acquired taste! They look a bit like a caterpillar, can be fried, grilled or stewed. You see them in the markets as a snack or are served with a chilli sauce and or peanuts.
mealies – corn on the cob/sweetcorn.
melktart – milk tart with nutmeg. A traditional Afrikaans desert. Look out also for Malva Pudding and Cape Brandy pudding.
morogo – wild African spinach
ostrich – the Cape is the world centre for ostrich farming so expect to see plenty on restaurant menus. You will also be offered plenty of other game meat from crocodile to impala and kudu as there is a thriving game farm industry in South Africa.
pap – the traditional black African staple. A stiff maize meal porridge similar to American grits (before maize arrived, they used sorghum), usually eaten with a stew of vegetables and meat. It comes in many variations. ‘Slap pap’ is a runnier, softer breakfast porridge. ‘Stywe pap’ is a thick paste like stodgy mashed potato, good for mopping up stew with the fingers and is also eaten sweet. ‘Phutu pap’ is a drier, slightly crumbly version like polenta.
potjie (pronounced poykee) – a three-legged cast iron pot used for cooking over an open fire.
potjiekos/bredie (pronounced poykeekos/breedee) – a traditional stew cooked in a potjie, known as a potjiekos in the Afrikaans north of the country and as a bredie in the Cape.
sosaties – kebabs. Meat that is marinated and grilled on a skewer, usually at a braai.
waterblommetjie – (pronounced vorterblommerkee) in the Cape, look out for stews containing this local speciality, a type of waterlilly.