A Brief History of South African Cuisine

At this point in my trip, I'd found plenty of elevated, internationally-inspired cuisine in Cape Town, but I still hadn't found a traditional African restaurant. An African restaurant... That's like saying a North American restaurant. Before the Europeans arrived in 16th century, various peoples lived throughout the area now known as South Africa. I believe that the Xhosa people, the San peoples, the Bantu-speaking peoples, and the Tugela peoples were some of the more prominent, but don't quote me on that. Some of these peoples herded livestock, but agriculture was not popular and most fruits and vegetables were foraged. To try and grasp the effects of that these native people's culinary traditions upon modern South Africa would be like trying to show the effects of Native American cooking traditions on modern America.


When the Dutch colonized South Africa, they brought with them European ingredients and cooking traditions. This was back in the 17th century. To untangle to origins of the numerous dishes that arose back then would require a grant or two, suffice it to say that some of these dishes are still popular. They include potjiekos, a thick meat and vegetable stew; Tomato bredie, another stew only heavily spiced and typically featuring fewer vegetables that potjiekos; melktert, a milk tart that tastes a bit like horchata; and koeksister, a fried pastry absolutely saturated with sugar syrup.

Melktert, eaten at Village Shop in Hoekwil

The Trekboers, who were somewhat like our pioneers, were groups of nomadic colonialists who left Cape Town to move throughout South Africa's interior, subsisting off of herded livestock and temporary farms. The Voortrekkers were a similar group, only they set out from the Eastern Cape. Together, these people eventually became known as the Boers: rough-around-the-edges farmers of European ancestry who lived alongside the native peoples. They created frontier towns and they too developed a somewhat cuisine independent of the coast colonial cities.

Boerewors sausage, photo by by AndyRobertsPhotos

One of the reasons I bring up the Boers is the Boerewors sausage. Because of the name, it would seem as though the Boers invented this delicious sausage, which is typically heavily spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon, but spiced sausages were already a part of everyday life in The Netherlands. Boerewors have become a South African staple.

The Boers and the native peoples developed the language Afrikaans, which gave us the wonderful term, braai. Braai is an event and a cooking style. Similar to a barbecue, a braai involves grilling meat over an outdoor, wood-fired grill, and the cooking style is common throughout most countries in the southern portion of Africa. It is a truly authentic African meal, and you better believe you'll find Boerewors sausage in spades.

In the 19th century, Indians came to South African, and they quickly helped shape South African cuisine. The first Indians were Dutch slaves. Whether they or the curry-loving Dutch are responsible or a combination of both, curry dishes soon became popular in South Africa, beginning in the Eastern Cape around Durban, and one of South Africa's most famous dishes was born: Bunny Chow. Bunny Chow is a half loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with curry. Sadly, because I spent most of my trip on the Western Cape, I never came across this Bunny Chow.

What I did experience was Cape Malay-style cooking. Cape Malay cooking was developed by the community living in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood in Cape Town, which is known as the Cape Malay community. This community, like the Indians on the Eastern Cape, also finds its roots in slavery, These people came from Southeast Asia, India, and Indonesia (Malay as in Malaysian). Today, the Cape Malay community is Muslim, and the Bo-Kaap areas is one of the most beautiful parts of Cape Town, with wonderful mosques and brilliant, pastel-colored homes. I highly recommend taking the Andulela Culinary Tour, which takes food lovers into a local home, where they prepare awesome dishes with home cooks who've made the dishes a million times already.

Lamb curry (Cape Malay-style)

Cape Malay-style food involves masalas, curries, and delicious breads, including roti and samosas. Some traditional Cape Malay dishes are bobotie, comprised of mincemeat spiced with curry and other spices and topped with an egg-based topping (this dish is very versatile, and I had a tremendous bobotie that reminded me of a crust-less mincemeat pie topped with whipped potatoes); oumens onder die komber, which are similar to dolma; and smoorsnoek, white fish gently smoked then simmered with tomatoes and onions. Of course, rich curries made from the excellently prepared, fresh masalas (curry mixes) of Cape Town are truly unbeatable.

Antelope steak, eaten at 5 Ryneveld in Stellenbosch
Thanks to this mix of cultural influences, South Africa's cuisine has earned the monicker, rainbow cuisine. Other traditional dishes that I found during my time in South Africa include sosaties, or kebabs; biltong, a very tender beef jerky; lots of steaks, from South African lamb and beef to ostrich and antelope; frikkadelle, meatballs; the Gatsby, a Capetonian sandwich involving a baguette, French fries, and meat (late night food!); and smoked fish pate, aka snoek pate. Two dishes I didn't come across but that sound pretty wacky are Walkie Talkies, deep-fried chicken heads and feet, and Mashonzha, a dish of mopani caterpillars sauteed with onion, pepper, tomatoes, and curry spices.

Mopani caterpillars by NH53

Today, South Africa's cuisine continues to develop, and, as the prior posts suggest, many of the restaurants draw international inspiration. Sushi restaurants are just as common as Ethiopian restaurants, and local fast food chains compete with the bizarrely popular Kentucky Fried Chicken chain. I still wanted to taste something truly African, and I found it at Bebe Rose restaurant in Cape Town, which will be featured in next week's post.


Nubian said…
What you ate is traditional South African. When you say you haven't eaten African are you referring to what they eat in the townships? It is all the same.

My mouth is watering for a koeksuster and melktert from the Village Shop. ;-)

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