South Africa is an incredibly diverse country. Some of its people belong to native ethnic groups like the Xhosa, the Zulu, or the Venda, while others are descended from Dutch or British colonists. Still, others can trace their roots back to Indian and Indonesian immigrants brought over as laborers in past centuries. Each of these cultures has its own unique culinary traditions, which have been adapted over the years to make the most of South Africa’s bountiful natural produce. Both coasts are rich sources of seafood, from Knysna oysters to Cape snoek. Inland, the country’s climatic regions range from semi-desert to subtropical and yield a smorgasbord of fruit, vegetables, and livestock.
Meat is a central focus of many South African cuisines, and yet vegetarians and even vegans are increasingly well-catered for (especially in bigger cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg). There are many ways to discover the country’s culinary culture. Spend a morning browsing artisan food stalls at a Western Cape farmer’s market. Join a Cape Malay cooking class in Bo-Kaap, or sit down at a township shisa nyama in Soweto or Khayelitsha. The vineyards of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are renowned for their world-class wines and fine-dining restaurants, while Durban has earned itself a reputation as the curry capital of Southern Africa.
Here are eight iconic foods to try in South Africa.
A noun and a verb, the word "braai" means barbecue, but it’s more than a method of cooking in South Africa. Here, it’s a way of life that transcends racial and social boundaries and brings people across the country together every weekend. Standard braai fare includes steaks, burgers (made from beef or game animals like springbok and impala), and boerewors, or farmer’s sausage. The latter is made from beef and generously seasoned with herbs and spices. Other uniquely South African specialties that you may see on the braai include skilpadjies (lamb’s liver wrapped in caul fat) and sosaties (the Cape Malay version of a meat skewer). Fish is often braaied in coastal areas, while walkie talkies (chicken feet and heads) are popular in the townships.
Biltong may be mistaken at first glance for a kind of beef jerky, but South Africans roundly reject comparisons between the two. The tradition of curing and drying raw meat goes back to the time of South Africa’s earliest hunter-gatherers and was made into an art form by the Dutch Voortrekkers. Now, the process involves cutting meat into strips, marinating it in vinegar, and flavoring it with spices. The pieces are then left to dry for several days before being ready to eat. Biltong is usually made from beef or game, although chicken and bacon varieties do exist. You will find it everywhere you go—behind bar counters, in gas stations, supermarkets, and homes, and even as an ingredient in gourmet restaurants.
Umngqusho is a traditional Xhosa dish and a staple in townships and rural villages across the country. It’s especially popular in the Transkei, an Eastern Cape region that served a Xhosa homeland during apartheid and was the birthplace of Nelson Mandela. The legendary former president once named umngqusho as his favorite dish. It’s a filling, comforting stew of samp and beans, which must be soaked overnight and then simmered on a low heat for several hours before they become soft enough to eat. Traditionally the dish is served simply with a knob of butter and salt for flavor; however, adapted or reinvented recipes add ingredients like meat stock, curry powder, or chopped vegetables. The correct pronunciation uses a Xhosa click followed by the word “nush.”
Considered by many to be South Africa’s unofficial national dish, bobotie (pronounced ba-boor-ti) consists of curried minced meat topped with a savory custard, then baked in the oven. The most common meats are beef and lamb, although pork is sometimes used, and vegetarian versions are also relatively common. Traditionally, the meat is mixed with exotic spices, dried fruit, and nuts, giving it a pleasant aromatic smell and a richly complex flavor. Although its origins are disputed, the earliest bobotie recipes are most likely to have been brought over to South Africa by laborers from South East Asia, who were imported by Dutch colonists and settled to become the Cape Malay people. Bobotie is traditionally served with yellow rice, sliced banana, and chutney.
During the British colonial era, Indian immigrants were brought over to South Africa to work on KwaZulu-Natal’s sugarcane plantations. Many stayed, and now Durban has the largest Indian population in sub-Saharan Africa and a wealth of excellent curry restaurants to match. Mostly these restaurants serve traditional Indian cuisine, but there is one dish that’s uniquely South African, and that’s the bunny chow. Bunnies are half or quarter loaves of bread that have been hollowed out and filled with curry. According to legend, the dish originated as a way of enabling laborers to carry their curries to the sugarcane fields, with the bread doubling as a container and plate. Mutton is the classic flavor, but beef, chicken, and bean are all common as well.
From the Afrikaans word meaning “small-pot food,” potjiekos (pronounced poi-key-kos) consists of meat, vegetables, and starch cooked together in a three-legged cast-iron pot. The resulting dish is similar to a stew, but with a few key differences. Firstly, potjiekos uses very little water. Oil is initially used for cooking the meat, then wine or stock is added to prevent the ingredients from sticking throughout the cooking process. A good chef never stirs a potjie. Instead, it cooks on its own over the coals for several hours, preserving the individual flavors of each ingredient. A potjie is a social event accompanied by good conversation and plenty of South African beer. Recipes differ from family to family and are handed down through the generations like heirlooms.
Although it’s not a dish on its own, anyone who wants to sample indigenous African cooking must try pap. A kind of porridge made from mealie meal, it’s a staple amongst Bantu cultures and comes in several different forms. These include stywe pap, slap pap, and putu pap. Stywe pap is thick and stodgy and can be used to mop up the stew with your fingers. Slap pap is smooth, and usually served as a breakfast porridge with milk, sugar, and sometimes butter. Crumbly putu pap is a popular side dish. It is often served with other African dishes, including umfino (a mixture of mealie meal and spinach) and chakalaka (a spicy relish made with tomatoes and onions). Mealies are also used in traditional drinks like mageu and umqombothi.
South African cuisine has more than its fair share of delicious desserts, including koeksisters (syrup-infused plaits of deep-fried dough) and hertzoggies (jam-filled cookies topped with coconut). Malva pudding is probably the most popular across all cultures, though, and can be found on the menu of most South African restaurants. A kind of sponge cake, it is thought to have been brought over by the Dutch and named after the Afrikaans word ‘malvalekker,’ meaning marshmallow. It is made with apricot jam, topped with a sticky, caramelized sauce, and usually served hot. In winter, it goes best with custard, and in summer, it’s great with cream or vanilla ice cream. Many South African families have adopted malva pudding as their traditional Christmas dessert.