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The traveller's guide to South African food

Updated on June 19, 2014

Introduction

South Africa is a great tourist destination, especially with the exchange rate being weak for the past year. Your dollars or euros will go far in South Africa, and that means you can indulge in all sorts of lekker (tasty) treats.

South African menus, however, can be a bit overwhelming due to all the Afrikaans food names. Here are some of the most popular (and tasty) items you should try while you're visiting the Rainbow Nation, whether you're in Cape Town or Joburg.

(If you're unable to travel to South Africa, I've included several recipes so you can cook these dishes in your own kitchen.)

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Biltong

Biltong (pronounced like "bill tong") is a dried meat product sold in South Africa. The closest thing to compare biltong to is jerky, however biltong is (usually) superior to American beef jerky.

The meat used in biltong is usually beef or springbok, an animal very similar to deer. Unlike jerky it is not common to find fish or chicken varieties of biltong. Free range and organic biltong can also be had in speciality shops, and halaal varieties are also available.

Biltong can be found sliced or in sticks. If you are looking for a more tender biltong, the slices are often much easier to chew and the sticks are closer to a jerky texture. Additionally, you can find biltong in peri-peri varieties, which are quite spicy.

For a recipe and some history on biltong, see this wonderful hub by HendrikDB.

Biryani

Biryani (sometimes spelled breyani) is a traditional Indian dish that has a huge place in South African cuisine. Fragrant chicken, mutton, or beef is coated in spices, fried onions, and yogurt (or Sour Milk), and half-cooked rice is piled on top. The entire dish is steamed together, and the flavour of the spices and the meat permeates the rice, making for a very rich dish. The South African variety of biryani is nowhere near as spicy as many Indian and Pakistani versions, so if your palate is afraid of chillies this is the biryani to try.

Biryani can have potatoes and hardboiled egg above the layer of meat. Sometimes cooked lentils are added as well. Eat your biryani with a yogurt sauce and a paapar (crispy rice-flour bread), and be sure to come hungry as this dish will fill you up.

Note: You should do your best to eat biryani cooked by a competent chef. Ask around for recommendations.

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Bobotie

Bobotie (pronounced bah-boot-ee) is a Cape Malay dish. It's very similar to meatloaf, but dried fruit are included in the meatloaf and an egg custard is cooked on top.

You can try it at home with this recipe. Hot chutney can be found at any Indian grocery store or sometimes at places like Trader Joe's or Whole Foods.

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Bunny chow

Bunny chow is a delicious curry stuffed into a hollowed-out loaf of bread. This dish was made famous in Durban and it is an inescapable part of South African fast food.

Ordering can be a bit confusing, but essentially the name of the dish is split into three parts:

  • Size of the loaf
  • Type of curry
  • The phrase "bunny chow"

So if you order a "quarter mutton bunny chow", you are asking for a quarter (one-fourth) of a loaf of bread stuffed with a mutton curry. Similarly, a "half chicken bunny chow" refers to a half loaf of bread stuffed with a mutton curry.

Vegetarian options are usually available at these takeaways. The most popular vegetarian stuffing is a curry made from sugar beans. Since many of the bunny chow shops are ran by Indians (Muslim, Hindu, or Christian), the vegetarian chow is kept separate from the meat varieties. When in doubt, ask the cook if it truly is vegetarian.

Try this recipe at home if you're feeling adventurous, or if you have a leftover curry just stuff it in an unsliced loaf.

Chakalaka

Chakalaka is similar to a cooked, chunky salsa, but that is a very poor description. There isn't really a food that Americans are familiar with that tastes like Chakalaka.

Chakalaka is diced onion and tomato cooked with chillies and other spices (and sometimes other vegetables). Each family down here seems to have their own recipe, although the canned varieties are everywhere for people who no longer have time to make chakalaka from scratch.

If you're eating somewhere and having pap (which is very similar to American grits), ask for chakalaka on the side. You won't regret it.

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Frikkadels

Frikkadels are essentially meatballs, although the taste is nowhere near the same as the Italian meatballs that Americans love.

There are two kinds: Afrikaans frikkadels and the Cape Malay adaptation. My family prefers the Malay variation. We cook big frikkadels, about the size of a baseball, in the oven, and when they're done we put them into a cooked chutney. This is not the kind of chutney you put on your samosa at the Indian restaurant - this is sautéed onions and ginger garlic, and spiced tomato puree, cooked until it is about the consistency of a very thick spaghetti sauce.

Tour of George Str Food Market, Cape Town

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Gatsby

Americans would probably see a Gatsby and think is a Hoagie or a po' boy on steroids, or perhaps even a Dagwood. But a Gatsby is so much more than that. Imagine a long loaf of bread split down the side and stuffed with soft french fries (slaap chips), mustard and ketchup, bologna (polony), spiced hot dogs slices (Russians and Viennas), cheese, chunks of beef roast, and lettuce. It's divine. But you might need some heartburn medicine afterwards.

Several local restaurants and fast food chains have their own version of the Gatsby. Jimmy's Killer Fish and Chips has a seafood and a meat Gatsby. Don't try to eat one alone, however, as it is about a yard long!

Koeksisters

Imagine a donut with fragrant spices, a sticky syrup, and coconut on top. That's a koeksister, but it tastes better than anything you can possibly imagine.

While you're visiting South Africa, make sure you try both the Afrikaans koeksisters and the Cape Malay variety as well. They're easy to tell apart, as the Afrikaans recipe is long, skinny, and twisted like a braid, whilst the Malay adaptation looks more like a long john.

As far as pronunciation is concerned, I've never been able to say the "oe" in Afrikaans words correctly, so I just ask for "Coke Sisters" and people usually know what I mean.

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Malva Pudding

Malva pudding is a wonderful winter treat, and it's really not that difficult to make. My sister in law made it for me at my wedding supper, and I've been loving it ever since.

Our family serves malva pudding with custard, but you can also have it with soft serve ice cream or whipped cream. But please, if you make this at home don't use Kool Whip. Real desserts deserve real toppings.

South African recipes adapted to American ingredients and kitchens

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Milk tart

Milk tart (sometimes spelled melktert) is a chilled pie where the filling is a milk custard. Some have vanilla essence as the flavouring and some have almond essence. I much prefer the vanilla over the almond, as I find almond essence to be quite overwhelming.

Here's a recipe you can use if you'd like to make one at home. You probably won't be able to find Tennis biscuits in America, so substitute graham crackers.

Serve your milk tart with hot tea or coffee.

Potjiekos

Potjiekos (watch the video to hear the pronunciation) is a stew cooked in a cast iron pot called a potjie (little pot in Afrikaans) over a fire. The variations on this dish are almost too many to mention, but essentially there is some sort of meat in a broth with potatoes and vegetables. You definitely want to try this, and if you are unable to travel to South Africa there are several recipes online that can be had. A well seasoned, cast iron dutch oven is probably the best substitute if you cannot find a potjie where you live.

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Wors

Wors is a long sausage made in South Africa. You can find strong (spicy) or regular variations, and the meats used can include pork, beef, or mutton. Halaal versions are also available from halaal butcheries.

This is a definite must try, unless of course you're vegetarian. You can find many shops selling wors rolls, and it's a good walk-and-eat option for those days where you want to take in as many sights as possible. Be sure to get yours with picalilly.

Conclusion

While this list is nowhere near complete, this should be enough to get you started. Once you're feeling more comfortable in South African restaurants, ask questions. If you're completely lost, ask your waiter what he or she prefers on the menu. Be adventurous, and if you do try something that tastes horrible don't let that stop you. You may have had a bad restaurant, the chef may have had a bad day, or perhaps that particular dish just wasn't for you. Eventually, you'll have something that makes you say, "whoa, that was lekker!"

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