At the southern tip of the African continent, South Africa is a country of extremes and intrigue. Where food is concerned, indigenous traditions have been married to a melting pot of influence from Dutch, French, Indian, and Malaysian settlements and colonization to make its cuisine entirely its own thing.
Boasting an idyllic crop and agricultural climate as well as a coastline that faces not one, but two oceans - South Africa is a place teeming with life and perfectly ripe food. From a traditional braai barbeque to a bunny chow on the run and everything in between, South African cuisine is unashamedly unique. Ditch the tourist traps, the burgers, and the pizzas, and try these traditional South African foods that are oh-so-delicious.
Braai is the Afrikaans word for barbeque. It is also a word to eat and live by in South Africa. Sown into the very fabric of modern South African life, no trip to the country is complete without savoring its grilled, roadside meat. Originating in Johannesburg, braais were a way for butchers to sell their meat right off the street, and South Africans from all walks of life and cultures never looked back.
These days, on weekends, you would have a hard time not noticing the seemingly endless stream of sizzling meats, curbside, ready for an open-season feast. There is no one meat that embodies a traditional South African braai - they grill it all. Beef, lamb, chicken, pork, and sausages - there is nothing vegetarian about it.
Now considered the national dish of South Africa, bobotie is the dish of the people that nobody turns their nose up to. Even though its origins are a little unclear, the reason why bobotie is so important to South Africans is its fusion of influence perfectly represents the multicultural vibrancy of the nation.
Minced meat is simmered with spices (usually curry powder), herbs, dried fruits, and nuts. The dish is then topped with a custard-like mix of egg and milk and baked until a golden crust forms and the cooking is done. Nowadays, you can also find a lentil version in many restaurants and cafes. By all reports, it goes just as hard.
Biltong is South Africa’s most cherished snack, and, subsequently, it is sold everywhere. If you are a beef jerky lover, you will find a chewy comfort in biltong. Even if beef jerky isn’t typically your thing, biltong’s peculiar nature and intense flavor may just convert you.
Beef is the common type and sight commonly sold in shops, but biltong is made from niche meats as well. Kudu is a native Southern African antelope that is made into biltong as is the ostrich. Whichever biltong you choose, it is likely to be flavored with vinegar, coriander, pepper, nutmeg, chili, and salt. Depending on where you find it, a few extra secret herbs and spices might be thrown in for good measure.
4. Bunny Chow
With a big Indian influence, Bunny chow is a street food that originated out of Durban’s Chatsworth township. Created as a “cheap worker’s lunch”, bunny chow has very humble (and proud) beginnings. Hollowed-out bread rolls are loaded with thick and spicy curry and served in cafes and restaurants right across the country (to the praise of everyone).
So scorched is this no-fuss lunch that it is now drawing international attention and is fast on its way to becoming a globally trending dish. The cool thing about bunny chow (other than its name and origins) is that you can find both meat and veggie versions without much trouble. The two popular meat varieties are chicken and pork, with the veggie being all about lentils and beans. Whichever way you come at it, bunny chow is a quirky sandwich that goes big on flavor and bigger on heart.
Pap has been an essential food for the people of South Africa for more years than you would care to count. Translating to porridge in English, pap is a warm and comforting starch made of white corn maize. Think of it in a similar light to grits and you will be along the right lines.
The beauty of pap is that it does not discriminate. It does just as well heaped underneath the traditional dish of chakalaka as it does a rich and meaty stew. The reason why pap is so widely eaten and adored in South Africa and its neighboring countries is its high yield. Maize fares better in arid climates when compared to grains like rice, barley, and wheat. For this reason, it was tasked with seeing people through thick, thin, and drought - quickly becoming a mainstay on every South African dinner table from Capetown to Johannesburg and every village between.
6. Malva Pudding
You didn’t think we would leave you high and dry without a sweet treat to satisfy? Malva pudding is a favorite dessert of South Africa and you would be very silly not to let it do its sweet and sticky best to you. Although it is technically of Dutch origin, you can’t help but feel like malva pudding is the South African equivalent of British sticky toffee pudding.
Malva is sweet from the very beginning with a good dosage of apricot jam featured in the sponge. However, it is in the toppings where the pudding really gains its credentials. A hot and heavy sauce of cream, sugar, butter, and vanilla is generously poured over the pudding straight out of the oven - creating a delicious mess of stickiness. In case this isn’t enough for your mouth to start watering, eateries are known to serve it alongside vanilla ice cream, ah-yum.
Traditional South African food does not have borders, it is food for everyone. The country is proud to take on influence in culture and cuisine, and we are all better off for it. Whether your sights and appetite are set on roadside braai or bunny chow, South Africa is a place to experience the wild and the world on a platter.
Another great way to experience some of the traditional food is try it in your own kitchen following recipes from cookbooks authored by South African chefs. Many are available through your local bookstore or online via Amazon.
The cat is out of the bag, South Africa is now a powerhouse foodie destination of the world. Every year there are countless food and wine festivals in and around iconic locations like Capetown, Stellenbosch, and Franschoek. Each would give any European food festival a run for its money.
The reason be? South Africa has an incredibly varied climate that grows fresh produce, happy farm animals, and insanely delicious wine. That’s right, South Africa takes its wine production very seriously, with the rolling hillside vineyards and internationally acclaimed drops to prove it.
When you learn of the ethnic diversity that runs deep through its culture and cuisine, you start to realize just how special the place really is. If you still have any doubts about South Africa’s credentials as a food, wine, and good time mecca, we will now let these festivals do the talking.
1. Cape Town Street Food Festival
Cape Town Street Food Festival is a big ol’ party and everyone is invited. Attending the festival is the perfect chance to discover Cape Town’s multiculturalism from the point of view of food. Vendors, trucks, stalls, tents, and the rest line the city streets, selling a wide-sweeping variety of local and international fare, with an emphasis on bites that can be served on a stick or in a bun.
One such food that is an all-time favorite of South Africa is bunny chow. Bunny chow is an Indian-influence South African dish that sees hollowed-out bread loaves loaded with a spicy curry and it is a national culinary treasure.
Do you know what goes well with street food fare? Beer! And the city’s craft beer scene is on full flex at this energetic festival that brings the city to the streets to feast and drink every September for 10 days straight.
2. Constantia Fresh Wine and Food Festival
If you are looking to taste the lavish side of South African life, it is served at the Constantia Fresh Wine and Food Festival. Going from strength to strength, in the last ten years, this festival, with an emphasis on fine wine, has established itself as a premier wine festival in the country.
Held at the idyllic Buitenverwachting Wine Estate in the heart of South Africa’s oldest wine region - Constantia, the festival show cases South African wine to the world. On top of having 200 wines at their fingertips and lips, ticket holders get treated to a gourmet spread put on by some of South Africa's best chefs. Seriously, if you revel in world-class wine and don’t mind spending a pretty penny to sample it, scribble the Constantia Fresh Wine and Food Festival in your diary.
3. South African Cheese Festival
The Western Cape is a mountainous region of southern South Africa. It is also chief wine country. Tucked away down in the Western Cape is a Dutch colonial town that goes by the name of Stellenbosch. Encircled by impressive mountainsides with a bounty of vineyards at their foothills, Stellenbosch feels somewhat distant from the rest of the world and boasts a unique and prosperous energy because of this.
An event that Stellenbosch is most proud of is its South African Cheese Festival. Held every April, it is regarded as South Africa’s biggest outdoor food festival and is a real treat for cheese, food, and wine lovers. Artisanal cheeses are shipped in from around the world to be paired with the region's famed fermented fruits and the 30,000 yearly attendees are very happy about this.
4. Franschoek Uncorked
Considered the “food and wine capital” of South Africa, it makes perfect sense why Franschhoek plays host to one of the country’s best food and wine festivals. Only a short 40-minute drive from Stellenbosch, Franschoek boasts a similar climate and geography that makes it a perfect place for wine making. Franschoek Uncorked is a celebration of the region’s endless vineyards and many wineries, with each of them putting on its own wine-fueled party.
Held at the beginning of spring, it is an opportunity for winemakers to promote new releases and showcase exclusive vintages. An Uncorked Weekend Pass will gain you entry into all participating wineries. Wine tastings, food pairings, live music, and entertainment - quaint little Franschoek comes alive for three electrifying days of excess, and we should all do our best to be there.
5. Knysna Oyster Festival
If you are in South Africa for the month of July, immersing yourself in the salty smells of the Knysna Oyster Festival is a must. Taking place over 10 days, the festival is a celebration of the sea with an emphasis on fresh and local oysters. Every year, over 200,000 oysters are slurped down by some 70,000 attendees and nobody leaves hungry.
Located along the iconic Garden Route of South Africa, Knysna is nestled into a very pretty part of the country. So, when you aren’t scoffing your face with local oysters, wine, seafood, and everything else that is good, we recommend checking the place out. It has some of the most picturesque bays and pristine beaches we’ve ever seen.
6. Elgin Cool Wine & Country Festival
In a similar vein to Franschoek Uncorked, Elgin Cool Wine & Country Festival is held across multiple wineries in the lush and wondrous Elgin region of South Africa. Kids entertainment, local bands, farm-to-table gastronomy-led menus, ceaseless wine tasting - people from all walks of life with a penchant for wine can have a very good time at this chic festival. Thankfully, and just like Franschoek Uncorked, there are festival shuttle buses to get tipsy patrons from winery to winery and back home again.
As a result of its passionate people and perfect growing climate, the Western Cape of South Africa produces some of the most exciting wines in the world. When you consider its melting pot of influence, for food and wine lovers, there really is nowhere on earth quite like South Africa. We hope the food and wine festivals in this article have given you the inspiration to fly due south and start sampling the fruits of this fine southern country. Contact me if you would love to learn more about my visit to the region in November 2021 – amazing, delicious and without a doubt one of my best travels!
Author: Debra Harris
As founder of Life’s Journey Travel, I’m deeply passionate about creating custom travel experiences that allow my clients to truly savor the journey.