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.
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.