South African Food is one of the many spectacular things to experience when you visit Southern Africa. Travelers flock to South Africa not only for its game drives and delightful landscapes but to get a taste of its succulent dishes. Most famously dubbed ‘rainbow cuisine,’ the South African food culture stands out because, over the years, it has been influenced heavily by many other cultures, including Malaysian, French, Dutch, English, and other indigenous African cultures. These many influences are because of the country’s intricate history of colonization and settlement and location on the coast. This guide features the most amazing traditional South African dishes with a modern twist.
What is Traditional South African Food?
Traditional South African food is meals that are mainstays at every South African dinner table. However, the word traditional does not always mean that these meals are entirely local. Many traditional South African foods such as Biltong, Boerewors, Bobotie, and Koeksisters have origins in other cultures and were brought into South Africa through immigrants, colonial masters, traders, and many more.
What is the National Food of South Africa?
South Africa’s national food is Bobotie, made from layers of minced meat, dried fruits, and herbs topped with custard. This amazing dish can be served with a spicy sauce of sambal and yellow rice (long grain rice prepared with raisins and turmeric). This succulent dish across the country is cooked in many homes and restaurants.
What is South Africa’s Most Popular Food?
Although bobotie is South Africa’s national food, Sosaties (Malay kebab) is arguably the most popular food in South Africa. This dish is made from skewered meat and ‘saus,’ a spicy sauce infused with curry, garlic, and apricot jam.
What Food is South Africa Known for?
Many of South Africa’s popular dishes are made from spicy sauces spread over a hearty, meaty dish with tons of vegetables like carrots, beans, peppers, tomatoes, onions, and many more. Pap, meaning ‘porridge,’ is also a popular part of South African food. Pap is a starchy dish prepared from white corn maize.
What is Special About South African Food?
One of the reasons why South African food is unique is that it is predominantly a fusion of diverse external cultural influences. Many Indian, French, Dutch, and Malaysian flavors and techniques found their way into traditional South African meals and have become attractions on menus of restaurants and home-cooked treats.
Here are 12 traditional South African dishes that have been given a modern twist.
1. Tamata Bredie (Lamb Stew with Tomatoes)
Photo Credit: What’s For Dinner SA
Tamata Bredie is a beloved South African classic that serves as comfort food in the winter. This spicy dish is made from slow-cooked fat lamb paired with roasted tomatoes to deliver an enriching flavor you’ll never forget. The Tamata Bredie also has a Dutch origin, although in harmony with Malay’s culinary dishes. In reality, the term ‘bredie’ is of Malay origin.
Browning the meat also elevates the rich aroma, thereby infusing the gravy with a more distinctive flavor. Oriental spinach is also used traditionally. A rule of thumb is using meaty tomatoes that won’t fill your stew with a lot of water. It’s also possible to slow-cook with the pot entirely open. You can add chili, cinnamon, and ginger to make the stew spicier. Diced potatoes, cabbage, carrots, or other vegetables also make great additions to this delicious meal. A modern twist to the traditional Tamata Bredie is served with cauliflower, lentils, parsnips, or hot white rice. Another great innovative recipe would feature beans, Cape water lilies, and cardamom are equally used to make this dish unique.
2. Braai (Grilled Meat)
Braai is an authentic South African dish and cooking style. The word ‘braai’ refers to the grilling of meat or can be used in Afrikaans to denote barbecue or grill. So as the name implies, it is a dish often cooked on open fires during social events. Braais is a South African dish that brings families and friends together. Common braai meats include skewers, lamb and chicken in the marinate, and boerewors (sausage). Because it makes for an authentic South African social event, invitees would regularly bring their own salads and meats to such events. Beyond the grilling process, there are tons of Braai-inspired dishes such as Braaibroodjie (or Barbecue Sandwich), which means filling thick slices of the white loaf with grilled meat and cheese. Often slices of onion and tomato may be added alongside chutney seasoned with salt and pepper. After putting the sandwich together, butter may be applied on all sides of the loaf, and then the sandwich is braised over mild coals until the cheese melts and the bread is crisp golden brown. Traditionally Braais are cooked over wood, but modern renditions use a charcoal stove. However, you should never host a Braai by barbecuing over the gas grill. The locals would say that it is the smoky flavor that makes Braais unique.
3. Durban Bunny Chow (Hollowed bread)
Bunny Chow is a truly innovative dish originally made by Durban-based Indian Africans. The amazing South African dish starts as a hollowed loaf of white bread filled with a great blend of delectable curries. Historians suggest that the idea of hollowing the white bread started off with Indians working in sugar cane plantations as their way of carrying their entire launch to work. Bunny chow is mostly known for the infusion of spices such as turmeric, coriander, garlic, curry powder, garam masala, cloves, and apricot juice to produce varying levels of heat. It is then served with rice, salad, and grated carrot or dates. In place of the traditional lamb curry filling, you can use a hearty pork rasher-and-bean soup to fill the fresh sourdough bread and finish it off with a generous spread of Parmesan cheese.
4. South African Sosaties (Malay Kebabs)
This refreshing dish can be found all over South Africa, from coffee shops to family restaurants. The name ‘Sosaties’ comes from the Malay term ‘spicy sauce.’ It is a traditional South African Braai made with lamb or mutton-chopped into cubes and then marinated with the famous Cape Malay sauce. Then it is skewed before cooking. Often, South Africans add tons of vegetables to the meat to spice up its nutritional level. For a modern twist, you can try skewering along with chunks of onions and soaked dried apricot.
5. Vetkoek (Fried bread)
Vetkoek makes a quick South African breakfast or dessert. This delectable dish is made from oil-fried bread paired with minced meat. Vetkoek originates from Dutch immigrants who had moved to Cape in the early 1800s. These immigrants had created the bread dish in a bid to cook and save time. Hence frying seems like a fast way. Vetkoek literally means ‘fat cake’ in Afrikaans. Your choice of fillings is unlimited. You can choose from chicken, beef, lamb, pork, or a mix of any of the meats. Besides the minced meat, South Africans love to spice up their Vetkoek with a little cheese or apricot jam, minced chicken mayo, or chicken curry. A very sophisticated twist to the local classic is serving Vetkoek with a Biltong sprinkle, green fits, and cream cheese. If this sounds too extra, another subtle but modern twist is Vetkoek, made with feta and garlic.
6. Samp-and Bean Risotto
The classic samp-and-bean risotto is soul food and a staple to many South African households. It is made with black-eyed beans, cooked with samp (dried corn kernels) in chicken stock. It can be enjoyed as a side dish with braai meat, lamb tomato bredie, or lamb casserole. For a spicier note, consider frying finely chopped onions with your samp and beans. You can also take the bolder modern route by adding finely chopped garlic to the onions to be fried before stirring in your samp and beans and garnished with chopped anchovies and asparagus.
7. Boerewors (Sausage)
Boerewors is a special South African food made from sausage and is said to originate from both Namibia and South Africa. The name ‘Boerewors’ literally means ‘farmers sausage.’ About 90% of this dish is meat. The remaining 10% comprises various seasonings and spices such as nutmeg and coriander. Often the delicious sausage dish contains a combination of meats such as pork, lamb, or both. However, a more traditional ratio involves mixing halves of lard and beef with spices. . For a more authentic dish, the meat blend must always be roughly ground beef and shouldn’t contain more than 30% fat. Locally made boerewors are cooked over a fire until the juices run out, creating a dry sausage dish. However, if you wish for an innovative twist, you can try combining braaied boerewors with another great dish, Chakalaka which is loved by South Africans. Chakalaka is an infusion of a variety of vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, onions, and peppers added to the mix. Spices like curry powder, paprika, ginger, and other spices are also key ingredients in this amazing food.
Bobotie is the national dish of South Africa. Known for its layers of meat, dried fruits, and herbs and topped with milk and egg mixture. This amazing dish is thought to have originated from Dutch settlers and was actually recorded as a recipe in 1609 by the Dutch that migrated to South Africa. Today it is an important cuisine to the Cape Malay community and is an equally popular dish in Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. However, other historians also state that the dish dated as far back as the Roman Empire and was often prepared by Ancient Roman chefs as a combination of crunchy nuts and tender meats topped with eggs and milk. Regardless of its history, the word ‘bobotie’ comes from the Malay word ‘boemboe,’ which refers to curry spices. The minced meat for this spicy cuisine can be pork, beef, or lamb. Bobotie is made from baked meat and spiced with garlic, lemon zest, pepper, salt, turmeric, and a host of herbs. The dish is further topped with egg and milk and baked once more.
What especially makes this dish stand out is its bright yellow color due to the custard (egg and milk) layer. Bobotie is often served with a spicy sauce of sambal and yellow rice (long grain rice prepared with raisins and turmeric). For the modern twist, dried fruits such as raisins and apricots add a fruity kick to this hearty meal. You can also try out a vegan version of bobotie made with lentils and melted apricot jam.
9. Potjiekos (Cooked in one pot)
Potjiekos is more about a style of cooking, like Braai. The term ‘potjiekos’ literally means ‘small pot food.’ This cooking style was thought to have reached South Africa through Dutch immigrants in the 17th century. Historians have it that these Dutch Voortrekkers (or pioneers) were the first to prepare the dish using the potjie, a small rounded cast iron cauldron (a descendant of the classic Dutch oven) placed over a wood fire to slow cook for hours.
Tons of South African dishes are prepared through this cooking style. The most popular include stews and casseroles made with layers of tender meats, potatoes, and vegetables. That said, the most traditional dishes cooked in Potjiekos style don’t contain any liquids. Potjiekos-style dishes make a hearty dinner meal for every occasion. A modern twist is to make potjiekos dumplings. If you are also tired of the traditional lamb, beef, or chicken potjie, you can try a hearty oxtail pot.
10. Biltong (Dry meat cuts)and Droewors (dried sausage)
Biltong is a truly enriching meaty meal. In truth, it’s actually thinly-diced and air-dried meat cuts that resemble beef jerky. It dates back to the 17th century when meat was often preserved with potassium nitrate and vinegar. These techniques still exist today and fashionably make the Biltong recipe. The meat will go through a rigorous process of curing with salt, air drying until very dry, and finally soaking in a marinating mixture. Biltong can be a variety of meats, although sliced beef is more common. However, native South Africans often use tender kudu and ostrich. Besides the preservation techniques, tons of ingredients also make Biltong special. Natives often make the marinating mixture from coriander, pepper, balsamic/malt vinegar, chili, salt, and other seasonings. Another fascinating way to enjoy air-dried meat is to opt for Droewors. This meat follows the same process as Biltong. The difference is that in the place of meat cuts, Droewors involves ground beef mince and mutton fat infused with spices to make a flat sausage that is further hung to cure. If you are in for some experimenting, you can try marinating your Biltong meat with red wine vinegar, brown sugar, coriander seeds, and your favorite herbs. Worcestershire sauce and sugar also make a great marinating base.
11. Gatsby Bread
Gatsby bread is an iconic sub-style sandwich that was said to have originated in Cape Town in 1976. It is a fairly new dish created by a shop owner who wished for a quick and easy way to feed his construction workers. So he efficiently prepared and stuffed French fries, polony, and pick/e into bread loaves before cutting them into four halves. Because these workers had recently watched the movie ‘The Great Gatsby and had loved it, they jokingly declared the sandwich a ‘Gatsby smash.’ When the owner finally opened the shop, he began selling the sandwich, quickly becoming very popular. Today it is one of South Africa’s favorite fast foods. Recently, the Gatsby sandwich has taken many sizes and shapes and incorporates tons of curries and sauces, depending on where you visit. A favorite is French fries paired with slices of polony, steak, and chicken. However, a more modern recipe also adds mozzarella cheese, chili sauce, lemon zest, steak, and chicken to the sandwich.
12. Malva Pudding
Beyond stews and meaty dishes, South Africa is also known for its delicious dessert recipes. My favorite is Malva pudding. Malva pudding’s key ingredient is apricot jam alongside butter, eggs, salt, milk, and flour. The pudding is poured into a dish and baked until delightfully brown. An equally sweet sauce of butter, vanilla, cream, and sugar is poured over the pudding while it’s just freshly out of the oven. Altogether, this delightful dish has its saucy caramel taste. Try adding cocoa powder and milk chocolate to your pudding before baking for a modern and refreshing twist. You can also add chocolate to the sauce topping. A favorite way to enjoy Malva pudding among South Africans is paired with hot thick custard or ice-cold ice cream.
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