South African Cuisine history

Indian bunny chowThe beginnings and advancements of South African culinary and cooking practices are as unique and varied as the people who make up the populace of South Africa, a mixture of Western and Eastern tastes and foods carefully associated with the history of the sub-continent.

To totally understand the multicultural elements of South Africa’s science of cooking, it is essential to know its historical progression.

Before the inflow of Western travellers and explorers to South Africa over 5 centuries, the “Strandlopers” (indigenous tribes) ate crayfish, fish, mussels, perlemoen, wild fruits and edible seaweed. In addition to wild game, they also consumed mustard leaves, veldkool, surings, and waterblommetjies located in various dams in the Western Cape.

When Westerners arrived in the Cape it was the hunt for food that formed contemporary South Africa food that it is today. The need for spices attracted the Dutch to Java in the 1650’s, and its need for refreshments on the half way mark on their way to Island of Java. They required refreshments when they came past the Cape in their ships. It motivated the Dutch-East-Indian-Company to gather food, water and grow produce on a couple of farms at the tip of Africa. There are areas of Jan van Riebeeck’s(Dutch Explorer and farmer) untamed almond hedge still standing in the world famous Kirstenbosch-Gardens near the city of Cape Town.

The Dutch East Indian company found it was much easier to get hundreds of slaves from India and Java to work the farms rather than try to trap the locals in working for free, which in this case was the Khoi and the San, who was totally unimpressed on how the Dutch worked and how they treating their people. The Malay slaves brought their food recipes, which many say is probably the most well-known South African food preparation style.

Many of the Western Cape households employed Malay chefs that adjusted their standard Eastern dishes using only local and regional ingredients and while doing so created those components of South African food preparation which can really be stated to be one-of-a-kind – the mix of sweet and spicy in various fish and meat recipes, and also the addition of delicious side meals like chutneys and sambals.

At the end of the 17 century, the borders of the colony were being expanded by immigrants like the French-Huguenots, who changed the Western Cape landscape in a remarkable way with all the French vines they brought with them when they left France. They quickly discovered a demand for labourers to work in their wineries, and resorted to the Malay slaves, and a couple Khoi and San they could possibly entice into employment.

Throughout this century and the following, there was a bargain of territorial growth development and inhabitants were building their houses far beyond the borders of civilized world. Lacking the features and services of community life, these inhabitants very early had to refine cooking over charcoal and wood and in outdoor stoves, producing marvellously yummy and nourishing meaty meals including stews and breads made from animals they farmed and vegetables they grew themselves..

When Cape Town came to be British in the 19th-century, British immigrants ended up in the Eastern Cape. They and various other inhabitants’ 19th-century – Portuguese and German among them – introduced their very own traditional meals and food preparation methods.

Almost two centuries after the first Malay slaves were brought to the Cape, a big boatload of indentured (debt bondage labourers) showed up in Durban to work as semi-slaves in the sugar canes of Kwazulu-Natal.

More immigrants came to South African from across India – and when their 10 year contract deals were over they decided to remain in South Africa. Obviously there was a market for their labour and people had families, so the majority of Indians stayed and did not return to their countries.

Indian culinary expanded so prominent over the next few years that event the Zulus of Kwa-Zulu Natal embraced Indian-curries as their very own. We have to mention that Cape Malay curries are not as hot on the tongue as Indian curries.

As you can see there have been many different influences to South African cooking.

Traditional South African Food

poytjie braai

Traditional poyjie braai

South African food is vibrant and highly fascinating to most first-time visitors to our beloved culturally diverse country.  A well-prepared traditional meal may just prove to be the highlight of your travels to South Africa.  Several bistros and restaurants specialize in South African cuisine and serve a great multitude of traditional Saffa-dishes for your enjoyment.

Attempting some tasty traditional African meal ought to be part of every visitor’s itinerary.   As with most countries, South Africa’s food heritage is firmly intertwined in its history and the make-up of its people and their identities.  A variety of specialized dining establishments in South Africa do an outstanding job of offering both conventional and contemporary African meals to visitors and the general public.  Each recipe mirrors one or more of the different cultural influences discovered around the African continent.  Naturally the Rainbow nation boasts a multitude of cuisines, all forming a part of the iridescent tapestry that makes up our South African heritage.

A traditional African meal is typically prepared over a fire or inside a 3-legged pot (also known in Afrikaans as a “Potjie”), therefore meat is mostly served grilled or as a stew.  The meat is usually accompanied by some kind of starch e.g. rice or potatoes.  Most often the starch of choice would be a local Maize porridge, also known “mieliepap” in Afrikaans, or “phutu pap”, depending on the consistency of the final products.  This savoury African creation usually comes with pumpkin, beetroot, cabbage and carrots as the main vegetables.   Mieliepap can also be served as a crumbly breakfast option, perfect with some sugar and milk.

Other common South African meals consist of Morogo, Tripe, Amadumbe, Chakalaka, and the well-known boerewors roll (a kind of beef sausage on a white hot-dog roll).

Tripe is a traditional meal highly favoured by a many Africans.  In the Western Cape this kind of fare is considered a regional delicacy and is commonly offered lightly curried and is served accompanied with smallish potatoes and some fried onions depending on your personal taste.

Morogo is a kind of wild green spinach. It is combined with butter-braised onions and tomato or even mixed into traditional maize porridge; it is seen as a rural ingredient with traditional appeal and charm.

Amadumbe is a pleasant potato and peanut mash.  A delicious bistro variant of this meal is to prepare some potatoes, mash them up with some butter and sprinkle them with roasted peanuts, rounded off with a trickle of honey.

Chakalaka is a spicy relish served together with the main dish and contains green peppers, grated carrots, sliced-up onions, vinegar and chilli.  Most cooks and housewives pride themselves on that one secret key ingredient which will differentiate their offering from another cook’s chakalaka.  Perfect spooned over “stywe pap”, chakalaka serves as more of a condiment than a stand-alone part of a plate of food.

The boerewors roll is a wholly South African food.  It is seen as the South African version of the NYC hot-dogs.  Normally seen at a roadside stands and just outside supermarkets and butcheries, boerewors (an assortment of spicy sausage meat) is grilled over an open flame, then placed on a roll (white bread bun) and then it’s covered in tomato sauce and mustard. What more can I say – Just delicious!

Various other regional favourites include a wide range of scrumptious Cape Malay meals, traditional South African biltong (South African version of beef jerky) and not to mention the famous curries and Bunny-chows of Kwa-Zulu Natal.  If you want to try something more the wilder side you should try smoked chicken feet and heads — referred to as the “walkie-talkies” — a very popular meal in the rural part of South Africa and served in townships as take-away fare.

We are certainly not forgetting those foodies who have a bit of a sweet-tooth.  South Africans love their desserts and boast many unique and tasty after-dinner specialities.  Top of our list has to be the koeksister – a type of sticky, syrupy doughnut consisting of plaited dough which is deep-fried and then smothered in home-made syrup.  This sweet treat has its origins in the Western Cape and is a variant of the more traditional Malay koeksister which is not as terribly sweet and contains more fragrant spices.  It is also not plaited and is traditionally sprinkled with coconut.  Both versions are completely delectable in their own way.

Melktert is another favourite, literally translated as ‘milk tart’ – reminiscent of a baked custard but with wonderful warm notes of cinnamon and nutmeg.  This tart can be served hot or cold, with or without a crust and is the perfect afternoon tea-time treat.

Malva pudding is a delicious caramelised baked sponge-pudding also from the Cape region.  The word “malva” refers to the Rose geranium leaves which were traditionally placed on the bottom of the baking dish before the dough was poured in.   Today this part of the recipe is generally left out which is a shame as it is such a delightful aspect which makes this desert uniquely South African.