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Best traditional food in South Africa

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Unique and flavourful, the traditional food in South Africa is a delight for foodies. From street food in Cape Town to biltong in the bush, try and taste them all!

South African cuisine is a unique fusion of many different external cultural influences: African, Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, Malaysian, Indian, Chinese and Indonesian. This has translated into an array of tasty dishes full of textures, tastes and aromas that are unlike anything you'd find at home. 

The inhabitants of the Western Cape in particular are spoilt for choice, living surrounded by world-class wineries and rich farmland. Spread with lush vineyards and framed by majestic mountain ranges, the Cape Winelands region offers up opportunities to taste some of the world’s best wines at local vineyards, and to sample innovative cuisine at the award-winning restaurants in pretty towns like Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. Put simply – for foodies it’s an absolute must-visit. 

If you’re staying in the bush on your South African tour, don’t miss the chance to experience a traditional South African braai – grilled meat cooked over an open fire. At a roadside stand, try boerewors – a variety of spicy sausage. While traditional food on South African holidays tend to centre quite heavily on meat, there are options for those that follow a meat-free diet. 

If you'd like to sample the best-loved foodie creations on your holiday to South Africa, read on for our pick of the eight must-try dishes that are synonymous with this enigmatic country.

1) Bobotie

We can't talk about the most popular food in South Africa and not mention Bobotie. This beloved casserole dish is made from minced meat (usually lamb or beef), a mixture of herbs and spices, and dried fruit such as sultanas or apricots. The addition of curry powder adds a bit of a kick, but the dish isn't overwhelmingly spicy. The casserole is topped with an egg custard flavoured with nutmeg or cinnamon. It is usually served with yellow rice (white rice with turmeric) and sambal, a chilli paste. 

The dish has its roots in Cape Malay cuisine, and is believed to have been brought to South Africa in the 16th century by Indonesian slaves who were forcibly taken to the country by the Dutch. Today, it remains a ubiquitous meal that can be found on most restaurant menus and is also enjoyed at celebrations

2) Pap

Pap (also known as mealie meal) is an important staple food in South Africa. It is made from ground maize and, when cooked, forms a type of porridge that looks a little like mashed potato. It can be made into a soft or firm consistency, and many tribes have their own preferred way of preparing it. It is also sometimes watered down to make a drink called mageu

It has been around since the 17th century, when the Portuguese introduced maize into Africa, and is still eaten every day in many South African homes, partly due to its low cost. While it is most often eaten for breakfast, with the addition of milk and sugar, it can also be enjoyed at lunch or dinner, when it is eaten with meat and vegetables, with the addition of chaka laka (a spicy tomato sauce) usually being the preference for an evening meal.

3) Biltong

Biltong is a dried meat snack that is cured and spiced. It is made from a variety of meats, including chicken, ostrich, springbok and wildebeest, though beef is most common nowadays. It bears a resemblance to American beef jerky, but doesn't have the same taste and is generally thicker. It is prepared by curing the meat in vinegar before sprinkling a mix of seasoning, usually including salt, black pepper and coriander. 

This chewy snack was created out of the need to preserve food when Dutch settlers first arrived in South Africa. While game was plentiful in the country, without the invention of refrigerators, there was little hope of storing food safely. Thankfully, curing the meat in salt, vinegar and coriander inhibited the growth of bacteria. This is how it received its name - from the Dutch words bil, which means hind quarter, and tong, which means a strip. While you can usually find biltong in South African supermarkets, the best quality stuff will usually come from a butcher shop or specialty store.

4) Vetkoek

Vetkoek - 'fat cake' in English - is another favourite traditional food in South Africa. It consists of a deep-fried dough bun filled with either cheese, meat, tuna and mayonnaise or jam. One of the most popular fillings is curried ground beef, in which case it is sometimes referred to as a 'curry bunny'. If served at a braai, they are usually filled with boerewors, a traditional sausage. It is eaten as a snack or for breakfast alongside a cup of tea. 

The roots of this snack can be traced back to the 17th century, when Dutch settlers brought their traditional fried dough recipes to South Africa, which over time became the dish seen today. This much-loved street food favourite is great to eat on-the-go while you're spending a day sightseeing in Johannesburg or Cape Town. You can usually find them in bakeries, at markets, and at street food stalls. Some supermarkets also sell them.

5) Bunny Chow

Another popular street food in South Africa, the bunny chow is formed of a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with curried lamb, chicken, beef, or vegetables. You can also find more modern takes on the dish, with fillings like cheesy chips and prawns. The bunny chow was created in the city of Durban, where there is a large Indian community. It’s unclear exactly when and how this tasty dish came to be, but one theory is that it was created by the Indian migrants who came to work in the KwaZulu-Natal province in the early 20th century as a quick way to serve their curry lunch during their short work breaks. Today, you can find bunny chows on the menus of both fast food joints and more upscale restaurants across South Africa.

6) Potjiekos

It can be said that potjiekos are the ultimate comfort food in South Africa. While the name traditionally refers to any meal cooked in a small cast-iron pot, the term has now become synonymous with the stew that uses this cooking method. So, what makes a great potjiekos, or 'potjie'? Well, firstly meat - usually beef, pork or lamb, broth, vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and cabbage, and a dash of milk. More modern versions include ingredients like chicken, seafood and pasta.

Slow cooked over a fire using wood or charcoal, and left to simmer without stirring, the meat and vegetables become deliciously tender and flavourful thanks to the addition of Malay spices. Potjiekos are often served with side dishes such as rice or pap. While it is traditionally cooked outside, you can sometimes find this warming stew in restaurants that serve traditional fare.

7) Malva pudding

Next, one for the dessert lovers. Malva pudding is a traditional soft cake-style pudding made with apricot jam. It is similar in appearance to sticky toffee pudding, and has a moist, spongy texture with a sweet caramel flavour. It is covered in a syrup while it is still piping hot in order to give it its moist texture, and is usually served with custard, ice cream or whipped cream. It has become more popular in countries outside of South Africa in recent years, and you can still find it on many restaurant menus today, making it a perfect way to end an authentic meal in the country. 

Malva pudding is said to have come to South Africa with the Dutch colonists that arrived in the country in the mid-17th century. How it got its name is up for debate - some believe it was named after someone called Malva, while others think it came from the Afrikaans word malva, meaning marshmallow, due to its soft texture.  

8) Melktert

Whether you’re on a safari holiday or enjoying a city break, look out for this next dessert. Melktert is a milk tart consisting of a custard filling made with milk, eggs, flour and sugar encased in a pastry crust. It is often topped with a dusting of cinnamon and can be served warm or cold. You can find it at restaurants and bakeries across the country. Among the providers of the top-rated melktert are Knead in Cape Town and Nostalgie in Oudtshoorn. 

Melktert was brought to South Africa by Dutch settlers in the Cape during the 17th century. There's a strong possibility that it evolved from another Dutch dish - mattentaart - a dessert similar to today's cheesecake that was first mentioned in a recipe book in 1514. Whatever its origins, it has become a much-loved sweet treat for South Africans and continues to delight visitors looking for a sugar fix.

 

Whether you're planning to visit the trendy coffee shops of Cape Town or enjoy romantic evenings dining under the stars while on safari in Kruger National Park, you can be sure of a unique and memorable dining experience in South Africa. With its myriad of influences and unique preparation methods, South African food is not only delicious but full of history. From stews and curries to deep-fried street food and, of course, barbecue, a meal here is a great way to partake in the local culture. As you've probably noticed, the country's cuisine is generally very meat heavy, but nowadays there are more alternatives on restaurant menus for vegetarians - and, happily, there are a great many tantalising desserts to enjoy. 

We hope this guide to the best food in South Africa has whet your appetite for your holiday and given you an idea of the dishes to look out for - after all, you'll need fuel for all that sightseeing!

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