Take some black magic, a dash of Dutch heartiness, a pinch of Indian spice and a smidgen of Malay mystery and what you get is an amazing array of cultures, all simmering away in the rich pot of influences that is South African cuisine. The country's culinary diversity reflects its multicultural society, ranging from African staples in the townships to seafood and steaks in globally acclaimed restaurants, and eating is an excellent way to the heart of the rainbow nation.

The Basics

Eating out is one of South Africa's great pleasures, and you'll find better value than in many Western countries. Book well ahead in Cape Town, Jo'burg and the Winelands, but otherwise reserving on the day will probably suffice.

  • Restaurants Most towns have a good one, ranging from casual to formal.
  • Wine estates Many have excellent restaurants.
  • Cafes Friendly, widely available and generally pleasant pit stops.
  • Pubs Many offer soak-it-up meals.
  • Markets Weekend and night markets have stalls selling global delights.
  • Takeaways Fish and chips in Cape Town and coastal towns.
  • Chains The likes of Spur steakhouses are local family favourites.

History

The region's earliest inhabitants survived on animals hunted for meat, seafood gathered from the beaches and sea, and myriad vegetables and tubers. When it became necessary to have fresh vegetables and fruit available for passing ships, the Dutch arrived and planted their famous vegetable garden (now Cape Town's Company's Garden). Their rich cuisine was infused with nutmeg, cinnamon and cassia, as well as rice from their colonies in the East. Malay slaves from Madagascar and Indonesia added to the mix, providing spicier accompaniments to the bland fare on offer.

The Cape was the birthplace of South African cuisine, but KwaZulu-Natal is important too: there were migrants from other African countries, British settlers and Mauritians who planted exotic fruits and introduced their spicy tomato sauces. And when the Indian indentured labourers arrived in the mid-19th century, they brought their spices with them. Learning the cultural influences that abound in South African cuisine leads to exciting explorations of the country's many specialities.

Cultural Staples & Specialities

Trout in Mpumalanga, mealies (or mielies; cobs of corn) in Gauteng, umngqusho (maize and bean stew) in the Eastern Cape, Free State venison and cherries, Durban curries, crayfish on the West Coast and succulent Karoo lamb – the variety of cuisine here is boundless.

The Afrikaner history of trekking led to their developing portable food, hence the traditional biltong (dried strips of salted, spiced meat), rusks (hard biscuits) for dunking, dried fruit and boerewors ('farmer's sausages' made with meat preserved with spices and vinegar; also found dried).

Cape cuisine is the product of Malay influence on Dutch staples, and you’ll find dishes such as bobotie (sweet-and-spicy mince, topped with beaten egg baked to a crust, and served with rice), chicken pie and bredies (lamb and vegetable stew). Desserts can be the rich malva (sticky sponge pudding) or melktert (custard-like tart), usually brightened up with a sprinkling of cinnamon.

From Xhosa to Zulu, black African cuisine is founded on the staples of maize, sorghum and beans, enhanced with morogo (leafy greens) or imfino (maize meal and vegetables), cooked with onions, peanuts and chilli.

South African Indian cooking brings delicious curries and breyanis (similar to biryanis) and also fuses with Malay cooking, so you’ll get hotter curries in Durban and milder ones in Cape Town.

What brings everyone together is the cross-cultural South African institution of braaing (barbecuing). A social occasion, the braai usually features meat and vegetables – lamb chops or sosaties (spiced meat skewers), boerewors, corn cobs and sweet potatoes – and can be found everywhere from the platteland (farmland) to the townships to the cities. Braais are sometimes called shisa nyama in townships.

Staples

Mealie pap (maize porridge) is the most widely eaten food in South Africa. It’s thinner or stiffer depending on where you eat it, and is completely bland. However, it’s ideal if you want something filling and economical, and can be quite satisfying served with a good sauce or stew. Samp (dried and crushed maize kernels) and beans fulfil the same role, making an ideal base for vegetable or meat stews.

Rice and potatoes are widely available and you might even be served both on the same plate. From roosterkoek (bread traditionally cooked on the braai) to panini, bread in South Africa is good and comes in infinite varieties.

Meat

In certain areas of South Africa, meat is considered a ‘staple’. Afrikaners will eat boerewors (sausages) or beef mince for breakfast, and you often hear people joking that chicken is a vegetable. Alongside the more traditional beef and lamb, you’ll find game meats such as ostrich, springbok and kudu. Steaks in particular are excellent.

Seafood

Considering the fact that South Africa is lapped by two oceans, it has a remarkably modest reputation as a seafood-lover’s destination. Yet Cape Town, the West Coast, the Garden Route and Durban have some delicious fish dishes. Among the highlights are lightly spiced fish stews, snoekbraai (grilled snoek), mussels, oysters and seawater crayfish. Pickled fish is popular in Cape cuisine, while in KwaZulu-Natal prawns are a common feature on restaurant menus, courtesy of nearby Mozambique. On the West Coast, look out for bokkoms, strips of salty, sun-dried mullet that can best be described as 'fish biltong'.

Where to Eat & Drink

If you’re after fine dining in magnificent surroundings, head to the Winelands. Along the Western Cape coast, open-air beachside eateries serve multi-course fish braais, with everything cooked before your eyes. A highlight of visiting a township is experiencing some family-style cooking in a B&B or home. In addition to speciality restaurants, every larger town has several places offering homogenised Western fare at homogenised prices (from about R75). Many restaurants are licensed, but there's still a BYO wine option pretty much everywhere – corkage charges almost always apply.

All towns have cafes where you can enjoy a cappuccino and a sandwich or other light fare. In rural areas, ‘cafe’ (kaffie) usually refers to a small corner shop selling soft drinks, chips, basic groceries and braai wood. Most cafes are open from about 8am to 5pm.

Larger towns have a good selection of pubs and more upmarket cocktail lounges. Franchised bars proliferate in urban areas, and most smaller towns have at least one hotel with a bar. In townships, things centre on shebeens (informal drinking establishments that were once illegal but are now merely unlicensed). Throughout South Africa, and in major towns in Lesotho and Swaziland, you can buy all alcoholic drinks at bottle stores and wine at supermarkets, though there are few options for take-out booze on Sunday.

Vegetarians & Vegans

South Africa is a meat-loving society, but most restaurants have at least one vegetarian option on the menu. In larger towns you might find a vegetarian restaurant. Cafes are good bets, as many will make vegetarian food to order. Indian and Italian restaurants are also useful, although many pasta sauces contain animal fat. Larger towns have health-food stores selling tofu, soy milk and other staples, and can point you towards vegetarian-friendly venues.

Eating vegan is more difficult: most nonmeat dishes contain cheese, and eggs and milk are common ingredients. Health-food shops are your best bet, though most are closed in the evening and on Sunday. Larger supermarkets also stock soy products, and nuts and fruit are widely available. Look out for farm stalls selling seasonal fruit and vegetables along the roadside throughout the country.

Eat Your Words

Want to know potjie from umphokoqo? Know your skilpadjies from your sosaties? Get behind the cuisine scene by getting to know the language.

Menu Decoder

It’s unlikely that you’ll see all of these items on the same menu, but they provide an insight into the diversity of South African cuisine.

Food

Meat Dishes

bobotie – sweet-and-spicy mince, topped with beaten egg baked to a crust, served on a bed of yellow rice with chutney

boerewors – spicy sausages, traditionally made of beef and pork plus seasonings and plenty of fat; an essential ingredient at any braai and often sold like hot dogs by street vendors

bredie – hearty Afrikaner pot stew, traditionally made with lamb and vegetables

breyani – a fusion of Hindu and Cape Malay influences, this is a spicy, layered rice-and-lentil dish with meat, similar to the Indian biryani

eisbein – pork knuckles

frikkadel – fried meatball

mashonzha – name for mopane worms in Venda, where they’re served with dhofi (peanut sauce)

mopane worms – caterpillars found on mopane trees; the legs are removed, and the caterpillar is dried and served as a crunchy snack

potjiekos – meat and vegetables layered in a three-legged pot and slowly simmered over a fire, often served with potjiebrood (bread cooked in another pot)

skilpadjies – (literally, ‘little tortoises’) lamb’s liver wrapped in caul fat and braaied

smileys – slang term for boiled and roasted sheep heads; often sold in rural areas

sosatie – lamb cubes, marinated with garlic, tamarind juice and curry powder, then skewered with onions and apricots, and grilled (originally Malay); also made with chicken

venison – often springbok, but could be kudu, eland, blesbok or any other game meat

vienna – hot-dog sausage, usually pork

waterblommetjie bredie – Cape Malay stew of lamb with Cape pondweed (Aponogeton distachyos) flowers, lemon juice and sorrel

Curries, Condiments & Spices

atchar – Cape Malay pickle of fruit and vegetables, flavoured with garlic, onion and curry

chakalaka sauce – spicy tomato-based sauce seasoned with onions, peri-peri, green peppers and curry, and used to liven up pap and other dishes

curry – just as good as in India; head to Durban if you like your curry spicy, and to Cape Town (Bo-Kaap) for a milder, Malay version

peri-peri/piri piri – hot chilli

samoosa – spicy Indian pastry filled with potatoes and peas; sometimes with mince or chicken

Breads & Sweets

koeksister – plaited doughnut dripping in syrup (very gooey and figure enhancing); the Cape Malay version is fluffier, spicier and dusted with coconut

konfyt – fruit preserve

malva pudding – delicious sponge dessert; sometimes called vinegar pudding, since it’s traditionally made with apricot jam and vinegar

melktert – rich, custard-like tart made with milk, eggs, flour and cinnamon

roosterkoek – bread traditionally cooked on the braai

rusk – twice-cooked and particularly hard biscuit, best dipped in tea or coffee

vetkoek – deep-fried dough ball sometimes stuffed with mince; called amagwinya in Xhosa

Grains, Legumes & Vegetables

amadumbe – yam-like potato; a favourite staple in KwaZulu-Natal

imbasha – Swazi fried delicacy of roasted maize and nuts

imfino – Xhosa dish of mealie meal and vegetables

mealie/mielie – cob of corn, popular when braaied

mealie meal – finely ground maize

mealie pap – maize porridge; a Southern African staple, best eaten with sauce or stew

morogo – leafy greens, usually wild spinach, boiled, seasoned and served with pap

pap and sous – maize porridge with a tomato and onion sauce or meat gravy

phutu – Zulu dish of crumbly maize porridge, often eaten with soured milk; called umphokoqo in Xhosa

samp – mix of maize and beans; see umngqusho

tincheki – boiled pumpkin cubes with sugar

ting – sorghum porridge; popular among the Tswana

umngqusho – samp (dried and crushed maize kernels) boiled then mixed with beans, salt and oil, and simmered; a Xhosa delicacy (called nyekoe in Sotho)

umvubo – sour milk and mealie meal

Fish

kingklip – excellent firm-fleshed fish, usually pan-fried; South Africa’s favourite fish

linefish – fresh fish caught on a line

snoek – firm-fleshed migratory fish that appears off the Cape in June and July; served smoked, salted or curried, and good braaied

Drinks

mampoer – moonshine made from just about any fruit but often with peaches, citrus fruits or apricots

rooibos – (literally ‘red bush’ in Afrikaans) herbal tea that has therapeutic qualities; look out for the 'red cappuccino', a caffeine-free equivalent using rooibos instead of coffee

springbok – cocktail featuring crème de menthe topped with Amarula Cream liqueur

steen – chenin blanc; most common variety of white wine

sundowner – any drink, but typically alcohol, drunk at sunset

umqombothi – sorghum beer, a low-alcohol and slightly sour traditional beer that is pinkish in colour and opaque

witblits – a white spirit distilled from grapes, mostly produced in the Western Cape

Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative

With more and more people turning to fish as a healthy alternative source of protein, there are fears that stocks around South Africa’s coastlines (and beyond) are not sustainable. Overfishing and the use of inappropriate fishing methods are taking their toll on the populations of many fish.

With innovative foresight, South Africa’s branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) set up the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) in 2004 to educate people about which fish are sustainable (Green List), which should be eaten with caution (Orange List) and which are so endangered that catching them is against the law (Red List).

You’ll be pleased to know that most of the fish you’re likely to find on a South African restaurant menu is on the Green List: snoek, yellowtail, albacore, skipjack and yellowfin tuna (depending on how they were caught), angelfish and rainbow trout. Species unlikely to be able to sustain heavy fishing, and therefore found on the Orange List, include Atlantic salmon, West Coast crayfish, haarders (mullet), prawns, red roman and swordfish. While restaurateurs are allowed to sell them, you might want to consider your actions. Bear in mind that some fish are acceptable only if caught a certain way; for example, dorado caught by traditional line-fishing are on the Green List, whereas those caught with pelagic longlines are orange and those caught with a gill net are red. Likewise, kingklip caught by longlines are green, whereas those caught by offshore trawlers are orange; check which technique has been used when ordering this South African favourite. It also varies between relatives – Namibian hake is orange, whereas Argentine and Peruvian hake are red. Absolute no-nos are galjoen, geelbek, white musselcracker, steenbras, stumpnose and blue-fin tuna.

Fortunately you don’t need to remember every fish on the lists to make an informed, pro-environment choice. Simply send an SMS with the name of the fish to 079 499 8795 and you’ll be told right away whether it’s a good choice or not.

For more information, see www.wwfsassi.co.za, where you can download a pocket guide and app.

Food Markets

South Africa's love affair with the artisanal is best embodied at the weekly food markets that take place across the country. You'll find organic veggies, freshly baked breads, handmade cheeses and a range of sauces, jams and pickles to take home, but the markets are as much about eating in as taking away. Vendors sell everything from chickpea pancakes and paella to delicate dim sum and hearty sandwiches filled with free-range meat. There's always lots of boutique booze available and sometimes little extras like live music, crafts for sale or a children's play area. Most markets take place on weekends and, while the bulk of them are in Cape Town and the Winelands, you'll find the odd market everywhere from small Garden Route towns to larger cities such as Bloemfontein and, of course, Johannesburg.

A Lekker Braai

The national pastime and the main food-centred social event is the braai (barbecue). Even the public holiday officially named Heritage Day (24 September) is also known as National Braai Day.

If you’re invited to a braai, it’s customary to take a bottle of your favourite tipple and your choice of meat. Often the hosts provide salad, boerewors and other side dishes; generally guests take a side or a dessert. Dress is casual and the atmosphere relaxed. Typically, men do the cooking while women make the salads.

Jan Scannell, better known as Jan Braai, is the poster child for the national pastime and the driving force behind Braai Day. His book Fireworks is a good place to learn the fine art of cooking over coals. Wood is the preferred cooking material in the Cape, whereas faster-paced Gautengers cut to the chase with charcoal. Either way, don't forget the Blitz firelighters.

Cooking Courses

Cape Town, a gourmet’s paradise, is the best place for cooking courses.

Andulela Packages include a half-day Cape Malay cookery course in the Bo-Kaap (R985) and an African cooking class (R985) in a family home in the township of Langa, where you can learn to prepare traditional Xhosa foods.

Bo-Kaap Cooking Tour After a short walking tour of the Bo-Kaap and a bit of spice shopping, join Zainie in her home for a hands-on Cape Malay cooking class.