With the 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 tribes 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, Germany, Portugal, India and Indonesia. Each of these cultures has left its mark on South African food and drink, 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 behind its unique cuisine. Be prepared for generous portions 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
Amarula: When it comes to alcohol, South Africa may be most famous for the pinotages and chenin blancs of the Western Cape, but Amarula is loved by many as a post-dessert treat. A cream liqueur, it is made from the fruit of the African marula tree.
Amasi: A 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.
Boeber: This sweet, milky drink is another Cape Malay staple made with sago, sugar and vermicelli and flavored with cardamom, cinnamon and rose water. It is traditionally served on the 15th day of Ramadan to celebrate the middle of the fast.
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 term 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).
Denningvleis: A lamb stew with a difference, denningvleis is a Cape Malay recipe flavored by a heady combination of sweet and sour spices including tamarind. It is traditionally accompanied by yellow rice mixed with spices and raisins.
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.
Hertzoggies: Named after Boer War general JBM Hertzog, these tasty cookies are often served during Eid by the Cape Malays. They have a pastry base filled with jam and a desiccated coconut topping.
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 that's 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.
Mampoer: South Africa's take on moonshine is rated as one of the world's strongest drinks with a typical alcohol percentage of between 50 and 80 percent. It is traditionally made from fermented peaches and is consumed neat.
Mageu: Popular amongst South Africa's black population, mageu is a non-alcoholic drink made from fermented mealie pap (see below). In its pure form it tastes similar to sour porridge but when sold commercially, it is usually sweetened and/or flavored.
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.
Rooibos: The word 'rooibos' translates from the Afrikaans for 'red bush', the name of the plant whose leaves are used to make this herbal tea. It is popular for its floral taste and for its health benefits (it's caffeine-free and low in tannins).
Rusk: A hard, dry biscuit designed to be dunked in your tea or coffee, rusks are a breakfast staple across South Africa. They come in many different flavors, including buttermilk, wholewheat and muesli and can have seeds, nuts or even chocolate chips mixed in.
Samoosa: Also known as samosas, these triangle-shaped pastries were brought to South Africa by Indian immigrants and have become a national favorite. They are deep-fried and filled with savory ingredients ranging from meat to beans, cheese or corn.
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.
Umqombothi: This Xhosa beer is made from fermented maize and sorghum malt and was traditionally brewed to celebrate the homecoming of young men from their coming-of-age initiation. With a thick consistency and a sour aroma, it can be an acquired taste.
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.
Waterblommetjie bredie: A South African specialty thought to date back to the indigenous Khoikhoi, this meat stew is usually made with lamb and is named for its signature ingredient - the waterblommetjie. These are aquatic flowers found on the dams of the Western Cape.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on September 25th 2018.