Eating like a local- a quick guide to traditional South African food
It’s no surprise, that a multi-cultural country like South Africa has had many influences on its traditional cuisine. Most families still eat everyday meals that reflect their specific cultural heritage but have also adopted popular dishes and cooking styles from each other. This is a summary of how our food culture evolved and some of our favourite cooking methods and dishes.
The San are the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa, descendants of early Stone Age ancestors, these hunter-gatherers have an incredible knowledge of local fauna and flora. They lived off wild plants (fruits, berries, nuts, bulbs and leaves) and hunted wild animals. Unfortunately this migratory way of life was slowly eroded by colonialism and urbanization. The KhoiKhoi, a group of pastoralists, migrated into South Africa approximately 2000 years ago. They were omnivorous nomadic farmers who ate plants and roasted meats and would cure meats for later use.
Bantu speaking tribes, for example the Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa,) Shangaan-Tsonga, Sotho and Venda migrated from central Africa to southern Africa and brought with them domestic cattle, sheep and goats that increased the availability of fresh meat. Their diet consisted mainly of roasted or stewed meats and cooked sorghum which was later replaced by maize as their staple grain. Milk was also an important part of their diet and often soured into yoghurt.
Like their ancestors most Bantu speaking households today regard beef most highly and meat is typically the centerpiece of any meal. Meat is often steamed with meaty gravy and paired with pap, a fluffy white porridge made of maize and some vegetable like pumpkin, rice, beans, or morogo (leaves of African spinach).
Shisa nyama means “hot meat” in Zulu and refers to meat cooked over a fire, also referred to locally as a braai (barbeque) from the Afrikaans word. Grilled meats are served, with pap, samp and beans (dried corn kernels cooked with beans) and chakalaka, a spicy side relish made of carrots, tomatoes and beans.
Cattle are a symbol of wealth in Bantu cultures and for a man to marry he will have to pay lebola, a gift of cattle to the bride’s family. On special occasions, a live animal may be bought and slaughtered, the blood spilt is said to please the ancestors. A large feast is then prepared for guests from the community. No part of the animal is wasted, including sheep heads (called smileys), intestines and the stomach, all of which are commonly consumed.
Wild game like kudu, wildebeest, impala and warthog are still hunted and eaten in South Africa and are considered delicacies for special occasions and are available at many restaurants, especially “steakhouses” or African themed restaurants. In the supermarket expect to find ostrich steaks, mince and sausages which are considered a healthy lean meat option. Game meats are often made into a dried cured meat snack called biltong, a favorite among all South Africans.
The influence of colonialism
South African cooking was greatly influenced by the immigration of Europeans to South Africa during the various stages of colonialism. Many white South African families still enjoy similar cooking styles to their forebears, Dutch, French, Portuguese, German, British, Greek and Italian cuisines.
The slaves and servants who worked in the kitchens of these early European settlers also had a big impact on the local cuisine, introducing eastern spices and hot dishes like curries and sambals.
Afrikaans food Is very much influenced by the Dutch, French and German farmers who settled at the Cape Colony in the mid 17th century. Again, meat is the focus of any Afrikaner meal as is the love of a braai which is more than just a style of cooking but a social occasion that has become a tradition in almost all South African homes.
Boerewors, meaning farmer’s sausage is made of minced meat and spiced with coriander, cloves, nutmeg and allspice. It is best cooked on a braai (cooking grid or grate) and often eaten in a bread roll like a hot dog but called a boerewors roll.
Melk tert or milk tart is a sweet pastry with a creamy custard filling and cinnamon sugar topping, best served with tea or coffee.
Koeksisters are a very sweet plaited pastry, deep fried and covered in a sugary syrup.
Malva Pudding is a spongy cake made with apricot jam, served warm with custard or ice cream, similar to sticky toffee pudding.
Rusks are double baked biscuits similar to biscotti which are best dunked in a cup of coffee.
Potjiekos is a slow braised stew cooked in a three-legged cast iron pot over coals. It usually includes layers of meat and vegetables, spices and a stock and left to cook with a no-stir rule. Most popular are lamb and oxtail but you can use anything from chicken, seafood or even keep it vegetarian.
Vetkoek is fried dough bread which can have a sweet or savoury filling, ie curried mince or jam, syrup or honey.
Traditional English cooking was introduced to South Africa by English settlers, during and after the British occupation. Certain foods and cooking methods were integrated into the local cuisine, for example morning and afternoon tea, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, full English breakfast, shepherd’s pie and fish and chips.
Cape Malay Cuisine is the cooking style of Cape Muslims, descendants of Indo-Asian slaves, who not only introduced Islam to the Cape but many of their cooking methods, spices and dishes from their hinterlands. This unique cooking style that has emerged includes fruity curries and the use of spices like cardamom, fenugreek, ginger, coriander, allspice, mustard seed, saffron and tamarind. Many Cape Malay dishes are now favourites in most South African households, things like:
Bobotie: a spiced mince meat dish with an egg custard topping, served with yellow rice and raisins, sliced banana, chutney and coconut.
Pickled fish is usually made with hake or other white fish that has been pickled in curried brine.
Indian cuisine was introduced to South Africa by indentured labourers brought from India to work in the South Africa’s sugar cane fields and on the railways. Today Durban has the second largest Indian population outside of India and their cuisine has been integrated into the fabric of our food culture. Curry and rice served with sambals, naan bread or roti are eaten daily across South Africa.
An authentic South African Indian dish is a Bunny chow, a halved loaf of bread with the doughy centre removed and then filled with curry and eaten in its entirety.
Samoosas are a favourite deep fried pastry snack. They are folded into a triangular shape and filled with a savoury, spicy filling, like curried mince, chicken or vegetables.
No curry would be complete without chutney, a cold sauce made from fruit, vinegar and spices. A South African favourite is Mrs Ball’s chutney and South Africans add chutney to all manner of things besides just curries.