South African cuisine is as diverse as its people. Before settlers arrived on the shores of the southernmost part of ‘the dark continent’ in the 17th century, indigenous African people had traditional meals unique to each tribe – and the arrival of colonists from Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany, the French Huguenots and of course, the British, added a spectacular array of flavours to the melting pot.
A South African staple food is ‘pap’, which is a stiff type of maize porridge that provides sustenance to the low-income households that make up the majority of the population. Another maize-based derivative is the fermented non-alcoholic beverage ‘mageu’, which is a nutritious African drink and very popular in township and rural areas. When shopping, keep in mind that maize meal is known as ‘mielie’ meal in South Africa.
Now onto that great Mzansi tradition: the ‘braai’ or for our American readers, a barbeque. A South African braai is held outdoors, taking advantage of the country’s sunny climate, and meat is cooked on a grill over hot coals. You’re likely to encounter ‘boerewors’, which is a traditional sausage that varies widely in its spicing and flavours, as well as mouth-watering sosaties, which are cubes of meat – usually lamb – marinated overnight on a skewer. Lamb chops, chicken flatties and steaks are some more options for the carnivore. At a South African braai, your pap will be served with ‘chakalaka’, which is a spicy vegetable relish, or with a tomato-and-onion sauce.
Do yourself a favour: get to a potjiekos competition! Potjiekos is a type of potluck that originated with the Voortrekkers, the Dutch pioneers travelled across the plains and mountains of South Africa during the settler era. Potjiekos is made using a cast-iron three-legged pot over an outside fire, using any meat that’s on hand – chicken, mutton, game or venison, and even seafood! There is much rivalry over which potjiekos is the best.
Perhaps the most famous Voortrekker institution is biltong; strips of dried meat that were a necessity on their long travels. Rusks are also of Voortrekker origin, and are best enjoyed with a cup of coffee as the sun rises. They are made from loaves of bread, often flavoured with condensed milk or marmalades, that are hard-baked and then cut into rectangular biscuits that are perfect for dunking.
Some fantastic Dutch puddings and sweets have now become a familiar favourite on many a South African table. Take the koeksister, for example: it’s a sweet pastry that is twisted into long strips, cut shorter, then deep-fried in oil and soaked in sugary syrup. For something that is a little less likely to hold your sweet tooth to ransom, but still delicious, try a slice of melktert, which is a milk-based fridge tart that is served dusted with cinnamon.
A vetkoek or a ‘fat cake’ is a ball of dough that has been deep-friend, and then sliced open and stuffed with mince and chutney, or simply smeared with thick apricot jam. In some areas you can also order a vetkoek with polony, which is a luncheon meat that is usually diced into cubes.
This is but a small slice of the different flavours of South African cuisine!
Look out for our upcoming article on the spiced delights of ginger, nutmeg and hot peppers of the Cape Dutch style of cooking that came to South Africa’s shores on the slave boats brought in by the Dutch East India Company.
* Mzansi is a local word meaning ‘south’ and is popular used to mean ‘South Africa’.