An A-Z Guide to Traditional South African Food

Sliced Biltong
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With the possible exception of Cape Town's gourmet restaurants or Durban's famous curry houses, few people think of South Africa as a culinary destination. In reality, however, the South African palate is both exciting and diverse, influenced by the necessities of life in the bush, and by the culinary heritage of its many different cultures.

Influences and Ingredients

South Africa is a nation with 11 official languages, and countless different peoples and traditions. In addition, its colonial history means that over the centuries, it has seen an influx of other cultures from Britain and The Netherlands to Germany, Portugal, India, and Indonesia. Each of these cultures has left its mark on South African cooking, creating a rich tapestry of techniques and flavors.

South Africa is blessed with a generous climate, fertile soil, and teeming seas, all of which provide the fabulous ingredients needed to realize its unique cuisine. Be prepared for generous proportions and large quantities of high quality meat—although seafood is a specialty in some areas and many South African restaurants are surprisingly accommodating towards vegetarians.

Many South African staples will be unfamiliar to first time visitors, and often, it can be difficult to negotiate menus written in local slang. In this article, we've put together an A-Z list to help you understand what you're ordering. It is by no means definitive but covers a few of the key terms you need to know before embarking on a culinary tour of South Africa. 

An A-Z Guide

Amasi: Fermented milk that tastes like sour cottage cheese mixed with plain yogurt. Although it's definitely an acquired taste, amasi is thought to be a powerful probiotic and is enjoyed by rural people throughout Southern Africa.

Biltong: The uninitiated often equate biltong with beef jerky although most South Africans find the comparison offensive. Essentially, it's dried meat flavored with spices and typically made from beef or game. It is sold as a snack at gas stations and markets and incorporated into dishes at gourmet restaurants.

Bobotie: Often regarded as South Africa's national dish, bobotie consists of minced meat (usually lamb or beef) mixed with spices and dried fruit and topped with a savory egg custard. Its origins are disputed, but the traditional recipe was likely brought to South Africa by the Cape Malay people.

Boerewors: In Afrikaans, 'boerewors' literally translates as 'farmer's sausage'. It's made with a high meat content (at least 90%) and always contains beef, although pork and mutton are sometimes used as well. The meat is generously seasoned, usually with coriander, nutmeg, black pepper, or allspice.

Braaivleis:  Pronounced breye-flase, this terms means 'roasted meat' and refers to any meat cooked on the braai, or barbecue. Braaiing is an essential part of South African culture and is typically considered an art form by South African men.

Bunny Chow: A Durban specialty served at any curry restaurant worth its salt, a bunny chow is a half or quarter loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with curry. Mutton is the classic flavor for this meal; but beef, chicken, and even bean bunnies are also widely available.

Chakalaka: With its origins in South Africa's townships, chakalaka is a spicy relish traditionally made from onions, tomatoes, and sometimes beans or peppers. It's commonly served alongside African staples including pap, umngqusho, and umfino (see below for definitions).

Droëwors: This is the dried version of boerewors (and indeed, the name itself means 'dry sausage'). It is prepared in much the same way, although beef and game are used exclusively as pork goes rancid when dried. Like biltong, droëwors has its origins in the days of the Dutch Voortrekkers.

Frikkadels: Another traditional Afrikaans dish, Frikkadels are essentially meatballs made with onion, bread, eggs, and vinegar. Herbs and spices are also added before the frikkadels are baked or deep-fried.

Koeksisters: For those with a sweet tooth, these deep fried pastries are sinfully delicious. They taste similar (although sweeter and more dense) to donuts and consist of dough infused with syrup before being plaited and deep fried.

Malva Pudding: A sweet, caramelized sponge made with apricot jam, malva pudding is a firm South African favorite. It is served hot with a sweet cream and vanilla sauce, often with custard or ice cream on the side.

Mashonzha: In English, this dubious delicacy is better known as mopane worms. These grub-like insects are the caterpillar of a species of emperor moth and are served fried, grilled or stewed throughout Southern Africa. They are an important source of protein for rural Africans.

Mealies: This is the South African term for corn on the cob, or sweetcorn. Mealie meal is a coarse flour made from ground up sweetcorn and used in traditional South African cooking to make bread, porridge, and pap, a key staple for the nation's working class.

Melktert: Commonly referred to as milk tart by the country's English speaking residents, this Afrikaans dessert consists of a sweet pastry crust packed with a filling made from milk, eggs, flour, and sugar. Milk tart is traditionally dusted with cinnamon sugar.

Ostrich: The Western Cape is the world center for ostrich farming, and ostrich meat regularly appears on the menu of gourmet or tourist-centric restaurants. Other game meats in South Africa include impala, kudu, eland and even crocodile. 

Pap: Made from mealie meal, pap is South Africa's most important staple food. It is served alongside vegetables, stews, and meat, and comes in several forms. The most common variety is stywe pap, which resembles stodgy mashed potato and is used to mop up stew with one's fingers.

Potjiekos: A traditional one-pot meal cooked in a potjie, or three-legged cast iron pot. Although it resembles a stew, it is made with very little liquid - instead, the key ingredients are meat, vegetables and starch (usually potatoes). It's known as a potjiekos in the north, and bredie in the Cape.

Smiley: Not for the faint-hearted, a smiley is the colloquial name given to a boiled sheep (or sometimes goat) head. Common in South Africa's townships, smileys include the brain and eyeballs and get their name from the fact that the sheep's lips retract during cooking, giving it a macabre smile.

Sosaties: Meat (and sometimes vegetables) marinated in Cape Malay-style sauce before being grilled on a skewer, usually over hot coals.

Umfino: Historically made using wild leaves, umfino is a mixture of mealie meal and spinach, sometimes blended with cabbage or potato. It's nutritious, delicious, and an excellent side for any traditional African meal. Umfino is best served hot, with a knob of melted butter.

Umngqusho: Also known as samp and beans and pronounced gnoush, umngqusho is a Xhosa staple. It consists of sugar beans and samp (corn kernels), simmered in boiling water until soft, then cooked with butter, spices and other vegetables. Allegedly, it was one of Nelson Mandela's favorite meals.

Vetkoek: Literally translated as 'fat cake', these deep fried bread rolls are not recommended for those on a diet. However, they are delicious and can be either sweet or savory. Traditional fillings include mince, syrup, and jam.

Walkie Talkies: Chicken feet (walkies) and heads (talkies), either marinated and braaied or fried; or served together in a rich stew with pap. This is a common staple served by street vendors in the townships and relished for its crunchy texture.

Updated by Jessica Macdonald