The best part about traveling is to learn about a city or country through their food. There is so much to learn about a place, its culture, and people through their traditional cuisine, their ingredients, and how they prepare the food. South Africa prides itself in staying true to its indigenous roots and continues to enjoy the same food passed on to them by their ancestors. Amalgamating the influences of the Dutch rule in South Africa, and the synthesis of Malay and Indian, the traditional culinary art of South Africa has since evolved to include food elements from these aforementioned cultures. South Africans have always eaten corn porridge, with their meat, along with pumpkin, beans, and cabbage. But with the influence of other cultures, they have added more flavors, including spices such as nutmeg, chili peppers, and allspice, as well as curries, and sambal. Read on to know more about South Africa’s mouthwatering traditional food.
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Chakalaka (cha-ka-la-ka) is one of the few traditional foods in South Africa that’s also apt for vegetarians. South African history relates that mineworkers created chakalaka when they threw different ingredients in a pot so that they could eat with their mielie meal (corn porridge). It’s a spicy dish of tomatoes, beans, pepper, onions, and curry, although each region of South Africa has its own version of it. Chakalaka can be a meal in itself or it can be served with shisa nyama (barbeque meat) or boerewors (a type of sausage).
Address: Corner Chris Hani and Nicholas street, Orlando Towers, Soweto
2. Mielie Meal
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Mielie Meel (mi-li mil), or corn porridge or Miele pap, is usually served for breakfast, or as a side dish with South African meat and vegetable preparations. It’s cheap, abundant, and a local favorite because no refrigeration is needed for this South African staple. White corn is boiled with water or, to make it creamier and thicker, boiled with milk. Mielie Meel can be found in many African cuisine restaurants in South Africa.
Address: NY 115 Gugulethu, 7551, Cape Town
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Boerewors (bu-re-vors) is a traditional South African spicy sausage, made up of pork, beef, coriander, and curry. Introduced by early Dutch migrants, a lot of locals enjoy it plain, and others enjoy it inside a soft roll, topped with grilled onions, and drizzled with ketchup. And some others eat it with Chakalaka to make it a truly authentic traditional South African experience. South Africans enjoy cooking Boerewors over braai, or barbeque, especially during national holidays.
Address: 15 Bennett Street, Green Point, 8005 Cape Town
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Bobotie (bo-bo-tee) is South Africa’s national dish, brought over by the Dutch and adopted by the Cape Malay community. Made with dried fruit, spiced beef or lamb, it used to be seasoned with ginger, turmeric, marjoram, and lemon rind, but now, it’s seasoned with curry powder to give it a sharp tangy flavor. It is topped with a milky egg custard and baked until golden brown. Enjoy it with rice and vegetables, with a glass of wine.
Address: Pierhead – V & A Waterfront, Cape Town
5. Bunny Chow
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The origins of the Bunny Chow are a mystery but locals say Indian migrant workers created this dish to reminisce about home. It eventually evolved into a street food staple for them and for the South Africans. Bunny Chow is, basically, curry in a bread bowl. The white bread loaf is hollowed out in the middle and stuffed with lamb, mutton, or chicken curry, or, for the vegetarian’s bean curry. Since it used to be sold in the streets of South Africa, the bread served as the plate for the curry. Nowadays, if you want to try this traditional food in South Africa, you’ll find the Bunny Chow in Indian restaurants and takeaways all over the country served with grated carrot, chili, and onion salad.
The Hill Cafe
Address: 11 Kotze Street, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
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Potjiekos means “small pot food” in South Africa. Locals usually gather in homes and catch up with each other while the Potjiekos cooks for between three to six hours in a round cast-iron pot over wood or charcoal fire. Potjiekos regularly consists of spiced beef or lamb, flavored with alcohol, usually beer or sherry, with carrots, cauliflower, potatoes or maize (corn), and a few spices, as needed. Its cooking concept is similar to a slow cooker. Add all ingredients to the pot and let it simmer under low heat until all the ingredients have blended together, without stirring. Most South Africans eat potjiekos with mielie meal or pasta.
Address: 38 Trill Road Observatory, Cape Town 7925
7. Heat the Meat
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Shisa Nyama (she-sah-nya-mah) is a Zulu slang phrase, which means, “burn meat”. Shisa nyama actually started as a way for butchers to obtain more sales during the weekend. But the tradition stayed and has evolved to become a daily gathering place at a butchery for the local residents, old and new, to get together and connect with their roots, relax and catch up with family and friends. Coal fires up the grill, where the butcher braais rib eyes, pork rib, chicken, and even prawns, crayfish, and whole fish. Some customers also eat shisa nyama with pap (corn porridge), couscous salad, or grilled sweet potato or sweet corn.
Marble by David Higgs
Address: Trumpet on Keyes, Corner Keyes & Jellicoe Avenue, Rosebank
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Koeksisters (Kuk-sister) is another chewy-crunchy, fried dough dessert in South Africa but infused with syrup or honey. Koeksisters are prepared by frying braided dough in oil, and, when it’s done, submerging the hot dough into ice-cold syrup. Although prepared the same way by frying, koeksisters are different from koeksister, which is similar to the usual round doughnut. Best to have this in Cape Malay, its birthplace.
Address: 25 Denchworth Rd &, Belgravia Rd, Belgravia, Cape Town, 7764, South Africa
9. Malva Pudding
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Malva (mahl-vah) Pudding is a sponge cake, topped with apricot jam and cream. Some bakers create their own versions with ginger, dates, or brandy. This is best served with hot custard or cold ice cream in any South African restaurant.
Address: 1 Park Street and Hawley Road, Bedfordview, Gauteng, Johannesburg
10. Milk tart
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Melktert (milk-test), or Milk Tart, is a traditional South African tart with a creamy filling of milk, flour, sugar, and eggs inside a sweet pastry crust. They use a higher ratio of milk to the egg than a Portuguese custard tart or Chinese egg tart and have a lighter texture with a strong milky taste. Sometimes, the bakers will sprinkle cinnamon on top, or infuse a cinnamon stick with the milk before baking.
Address: Corner 7th Street and 4th Avenue, Linden, Johannesburg, Gauteng
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Vetkoek (vet-Kuk), also called Amagwinya, is traditional African fried dough bread, which means “oil cake”. It is eaten as a savory meal, filled with ground beef, or as a dessert, served with syrup, honey, or jam. Vetkoek is also sometimes served with another African food called boerewors. You can find vetkoek at most family restaurants in South Africa, from hawkers, and street vendors throughout South Africa.
Address: Corner of Burg and Church Streets, Cape Town
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Biltong (bil-tow-ng) is similar to the American beef jerky but thicker and less sweet. Often made from beef, it can also be made with antelope, buffalo, chicken, or ostrich. It’s usually cured with black pepper, coriander, salt, and vinegar. And now, with all the European influences in their food, they’ve also added balsamic vinegar, garlic, paprika, chili peppers, or lemon juice to the curing. Biltong can be bought at butcher shops, or groceries, or at specialty biltong stores.
The Butcher Man
Address: 105 Main Rd, Green Point, Cape Town, 8005
Eat and mingle with the locals
Traditional food in South Africa is simple but comforting and filling. And one thing it does is to bring people together, families, new and old friends, and even future friends in one place to spend quality time with each other. When you travel to South Africa and partake of these must-eat traditional foods, look for festivals, events, or other settings where you get to eat and mingle with the locals. It’s definitely going to be the best way to learn about South African culture and its people.
By: Jaclyn Abergas