I haven’t been denying it to anyone: my favorite experience during a nine-day gastronomic juggernaut through South Africa was rolling into the poverty-stricken but completely joyful township of Guguletu with Cledwyn Tyler, my guide for the week, old apartheid-fighter and new best bud, to grab us a tower of freshly grilled meat at the improbably famous Mzoli’s, a humble restaurant which everyone throughout this spectacular country dreams about.
It is the meal of my South African trip, and sums up what I love so much about this country. But my job today is to give you a view of all the working parts in South African cuisine…so I must begin at the beginning, lay down for you the whole South African gastronomic base…before I get back to that ecstatic day in Guguletu.
Stick with me: the township lies just ahead…
Where to start?
After the end of apartheid in 1994, Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined a term for South Africa: “the rainbow nation.” The guy’s got a good feel for words; the term is still widely used today. When an American like me hears it, we immediately think of the long-standing metaphor we have for our own country: “the melting pot.”
But it’s important to realize that the ways these blends work are very different from each other…and by comparing our melting pot to theirs we come to a much better understanding of South Africa.
I grew up in multi-ethnic New York, and I know exactly how that place feels. As a kid, I had Italian friends, Irish friends. These friends came from families that pretty much stuck to their ethnic traditions. A little later in life, I made Chinese friends, Mexican friends, black friends, English friends–who, once again, seemed very much of their communities. Sure, you’d occasionally hear about an Italian friend whose Italian dad had married an Irish girl twenty years ago…but, in my experience, that kind of “melting” was not the norm.
Things are entirely different in South Africa. As I discussed in this space last week, almost everyone (it seemed to me) represents an ethnographic puzzle. Here’s the kind of thing you always hear ten minutes into a conversation:
“Well, I have Dutch background from way back. But my great-great-grandfather married a freed slave, and their daughter married a French Huguenot. Me, I’m engaged to a devout Muslim from Zimbabwe.”
We are gathered together today to discuss food, not ethnography…so I’m sure you know where this discussion is going:
The food of South Africa works in roughly the same way!
Once again, back in our American melting pot…let’s say New York, where I live…you can have dinner at an Italian restaurant, a French restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, a Brazilian restaurant…and on and on. For the most part–except perhaps for “fusion” cooking at the higher levels–you will find those restaurants sticking to their ethnic traditions.
But here’s the difference in South Africa: generations ago, sometimes hundreds of years ago, the cuisines of the important immigrant groups had already started merging. I’m about to explain to you the major culinary blocs of South African cuisine…but whenever you encounter them today, they are already twisted and tangled with the other culinary blocs. In some cases, such as the nearly iconic South African dish bobotie (see below)…you’ll be told that it’s a Dutch dish, with elements of Cape Malay food (Far East, kinda), plus elements of Indian food, plus elements of English food.
Intriguingly, when it comes to food…WE’RE the rainbow, in the U.S., with many different stripes side-by-side.
Truth be told: South Africa is the melting pot!!!
One of the bases of food in South Africa today is, quite naturally, the food that native tribes have been eating there for a long, long time. Even this little piece of the South African culinary pie gets quite complicated, however…because there are many different tribal traditions. I wasn’t in South Africa long enough to sort it all out…but you will hear references to Xhosa food, Zulu food, Khoisan food, Twasana food, Venda food, etc. Happily, from the researcher’s point of view, there are enough similarities to be able to speak of “African food” in general. (Just yesterday, I was at a kind of “African food theme park” in Soweto, where the tourists enjoy a big buffet of classic African foods.)
One thing you often see at these restaurants–particularly the more upscale ones–is the exotic game meat of South Africa. Very upscale restaurants serve these meats as well, but funky versions are widely available at “African” restaurants–such meats as kudu, springbok, eland, warthog, etc. I found myself liking springbok, something like veal…but really loving crocodile which, believe it or not…tastes like chicken! I should add, however–a fatty, full-flavored chicken!
Skewered exotic meats at Mama Africa: left to right they are kudu, crocodile, springbok
Skewers like these are often referred to as sosaties…but there goes that blending again! See more sosatie discussion below…under Cape Malay cuisine!
You probably won’t see these at restaurants…but animal heads (such as sheep heads), boiled, are very popular in African homes. The name is kind of odd: as the head simmers away, the animal’s lips curl backwards, revealing lots of teeth. Smilies!
INNARDS IN STEW
Another important element of African home cooking, as in most home cooking around the world…is long-stewed innards, including tripe.
What you ARE likely to see in African restaurants across South Africa, accompanying the meat, is chakalaka, which is very much like a raw salsa with hot fresh chiles.
And the African element that rolls most steadily through the South African gastronomic culture is mealies, which is simply corn, or maize–the principal starch. You can find it in many different forms in South Africa, including roasted corn on the cob in season. But what you’ll see ubiquitously is…
This is a white corn side dish, a smooth corn meal porridge (also called slap pap)…
…sometimes served with corn kernels in it.
This staple reminds me a bit of hominy; it is made from dried white corn kernels, in this case broken into large pieces.
It is also served, quite often–and I love it!!–with beans
I did get this far on African tribal cuisine: samp is usually associated with the Xhosa tribe of the Eastern Cape…who also make a mean hot sauce!
Of course, we get into the cross-overs once again here…peri-peri is part of the Portuguese kitchen in South Africa…(see the Portuguese section below.)
And, to round out the African starches, you will hardly see an African table anywhere in South Africa that does not have “butternut” on it…butternut squash, often puréed.
Of course, other kinds of squash are also available and ubiquitous. One of the most delicious I encountered was a kind of spaghetti squash…
In food and social matters both, contemporary Africans in South Africa are never uncognizant of the past, never uncognizant of the modern world.
We all know about the historic racial conflicts in South Africa. It is almost too simple to say…but much of it was caused by Dutch settlers (not unlike European settlers in the U.S.)…who saw a beautiful country, wanted it, and decided to marginalize the native inhabitants in all sorts of horrific ways. The Dutch–who early on created the Dutch East India Company for trading spices, but who also created a slave trade routed through South Africa–first landed in the country in roughly 1650. At first, they spoke Dutch, of course…but later, particularly as a tool to use in their wars with the later-arriving British…developed a language called Afrikaans, which incorporates local lingo into a Dutch base. The Dutch people themselves today, mingled with other descendants of early immigrants (particularly French and German), are widely known as Afrikaners. Many contemporary residents of South Africa, of black or European descent, speak Afrikaans as a fall-back language…and many menus are loaded with Dutch-sounding Afrikaans words. Isolating the culinary elements in this melting-pot-gone-wild is difficult indeed…but one must certainly recognize a huge “Dutch” or “Afrikaner” component in South African cuisine.
What I observed in my too-short South African week was plenty of meaty things with Afrikaans words, and many dessert things.
In a phrase, this extremely famous South African specialty is the local equivalent of beef jerky. But it is much more than that…and, often, much better.
The word comes from Dutch, a combination of bil, which means “rump,” and tong, which means “tongue,” or “strip.” Dutch settlers to South Africa brought cured-and-dried meat with them from the very beginning…but biltong grew in importance among the Dutch as they took to the South African high road later on, en masse, in flight from the British.
Today, there is no food across the globe with greater “South African recognition factor” than biltong. It is most often made from beef, but exotic-meat biltong–particularly eland–is also very popular. I did not once see biltong that had the thin-rectangle look of American beef jerky; most often it is cut into thick strips.
Whenever I saw biltong being sold–a well-known commodity, internationally–I also saw droe wors, or dried sausage, being sold.
Often, it is identified as “biltong sticks”–but the curious paradoxes are these: 1) no one outside of South Africa has ever heard of droe wors; and 2) I think they’re more delicious than biltong!
Here’s another hugely iconic South African specialty. You may call it the national dish of South Africa…and, as such, it could be included in any number of the ethnic categories I’m discussing here!
Basically, it is a casserole, a moussaka/lasagna-type casserole. They attribute Dutch origins to it because of the old Dutch fondness for minced meat; the egg-cheese topping also feels vaguely Dutch.
But it feels British, as well…as in shepherd’s pie. And, most important, it is always mixed in significant ways with Asian spices…boosting it into the spotlight as one of the most famous Cape Malay dishes, too (see the Cape Malay category below).
Wherever you go in South Africa, you’ll see basic stews being offered…often right out their pots, and known by the Dutch word potjiekos…literally a small stew, and, traditionally, cooked outdoors.
The Far East element in South Africa has, of course, developed its own way of seasoning these stews…
But, basically, the whole country is in love with the concept of simple stew associated with this Dutch word.
No meat dish has captured South Africa as powerfully as boerewors–literally, “farmer’s sausage,” but actually the meat that dominates in South Africa. Think of our fresh Italian sausage, and its place in the refrigerated meat case…then multiply that times ten.
The traditional spice for boerewors–just as fennel is for Italian-American sausage–is coriander seed. But other spices are often used as well.
Boerewors is always grilled…
…and often have a crazy-juicy seductiveness.
Here’s a quick guide to the boerewors varieties offered by Woolworth’s, one of South Africa’s leading supermarkets:
•FREE RANGE BEEF BOEREWORS
Made with ground free range beef to a traditional South African recipe. Contains no pork. Spiced with nutmeg and clove.
•FREE RANGE BEEF & PORK BOEREWORS
Made with ground free range beef & pork to a traditional South African recipe. Spiced with nutmeg and clove.
Made with ground lamb to a traditional South African recipe. Contains no pork. Spiced with clove and coriander.
Made with ground beef and pork to a traditional South African recipe. Spiced with roasted coriander and clove. Available in thick and thin.
•HALAAL TRADITIONAL BOEREWORS
Made with succulent ground beef, seasoned with roasted coriander and clove.
Made with ground beef and pork to a traditional South African recipe. Spiced with roasted coriander. Available in thick and thin.
Made with ground beef to a traditional South African recipe, which makes the boerewors even juicier and is packed with flavours South Africans love. Contains no pork. Spiced with nutmeg and clove.
•DRAKENSBERG BOEREWORS (often thicker)
Made with ground beef and pork to a traditional South African recipe. Spiced with roasted coriander and clove.
•FARMSTYLE BRAAI WORS
Made with ground beef and pork to a traditional South African recipe. Spiced with roasted coriander and nutmeg.
This delicious dessert is taken from the Dutch word for “cookies,” which is koekje.
It is, basically, a long-shaped deep-fried doughnut, which is then dipped in a cold syrup. Despite the Dutch origins, there is a Cape Malay way of doing it it that is even more delicious (see Cape Malay foods below).
One of the great desserts of South Africa is Dutch-origin malva–a sticky brown cake that is quite reminiscent of sticky toffee pudding. They say (of course, they say many things!) that Dutch folks used to enjoy drinking Malvasia from Madeira with dessert, and that somehow the sticky-wine habit became a caramelized pudding named malva. An essential ingredient today is apricot jam.
Let’s face it: one of the things that energizes South Africa is this weird European vibe in the midst of all that paradisiacal African topography and culture. You feel the tension (and that means both good and bad) every step of the way. There is so much historical hostility between the Europeans, particularly the Dutch, and the Africans…
…but the cultures finally live together peacefully…and the fusion of Afrikaner food and African food, I’m here to report, is deliciously seamless.
Cape Malay cuisine is one of South Africa’s most important. But the Cape Malay story is told a thousand different ways…and you end up having to choose which version to believe.
Here’s my version:
Along with the Dutch propensity for an African slave trade, and for a Far East spice trade…the Dutch also developed a propensity for a Far East slave trade! Many Asian slaves were brought to South Africa to work for the Dutch–from places such as Indonesia, the Phillipines, and Malaysia. Most of these slaves were Muslims, also known as Malayas! So the first controversial truth about Cape Malay food, which the slaves developed…is that it does not refer to Malaysia, specifically! The reference is to Muslims.
The heart of Cape Malay food today, the Cape Town suburb known as Bo-Kaap, is, convincingly, the premier Muslim neighborhood of Cape Town. Not many Malaysians…
There are many restaurants in Bo-Kaap, serving arguably the best Cape Malay food in Cape Town. In fact, there are those who say that it’s unwise to eat Cape Malay food in other parts of the country! There are also great stores for buying Cape Malay ingredients.
As an introduction to Cape Malay food, here’s a view of a dish you already know, because other groups in South Africa claim it as their own.
As you can see, the deep-dish meat casserole is in full force here–but now it is highly flavored with some of those old Dutch trading company spices. Moreover, there is a sauce made from chutney and raisins–as well as a raw banana accompaniment.
Here’s another Cape Malay specialty, though it’s kind of an ethnic mash-up: sosaties, which has a Dutch name, derived from satay, an Indonesian dish. You’ll find sosaties all over South Africa, in different ethnic forms; I like the marination of the Cape Malay ones…
These elements give you an idea of Cape Malay cooking. It is spicy. It is saucy. It is often quite sweet as well, even in the savory dishes. It has an Indian element, but it is not as aggressively spiced as Indian food. It is often accompanied by condiments, such as chutneys and atchars. It is delicious.
I’m prejudiced. One of the very best meals of my trip was at a fabulous Cape Malay restaurant in Bo-Kaap called Bo-Kaap-Kombuis (Bo-Kaap Kitchen). It is presided over by the sublime Nazli–chef, co-owner (with her husband Yusuf), and co-manager, a big, charming presence, whose charisma fills the house as surely as her masterful cooking fills the pots.
I’m going to show you the Cape Malay cuisine with a photo essay set in and around the exquisite Bo-Kaap Kombuis:
As I was chatting with Nazli after the wonderful lunch she cooked, I noticed some figurines on the wall behind her, clearly with the style of Muslim art…except that they were highly representational…
So I asked Nazli about the Islamic proscription against representation in art, and she said, “Oh, we don’t pay any attention to that. We just go with the flow. We just go with life.”
There is life galore in Nazli’s pots, and in her smile.
In 1820, nearly 5000 British emigrants arrived in what is today called the province of the Eastern Cape…signaling a whole lotta woe for the Dutch over the next hundred years. But the British didn’t grab the bragging rights for food away from the Dutch; it’s possible they had less to work with! Nevertheless, one sees signs of The British Empire across culinary South Africa today (and not just Gordon Ramsay on TV!).
FISH AND CHIPS
It’s everywhere! From upscale restaurants…
…to the realest of the real people’s culture…
In fact, British food appears to have infiltrated the real-people’s food–fast food!–more than any other segment of South African cuisine!
You will also see wonderfully flaky, deliciously filled meat pies across the country…including steak-and-kidney! Check these out…
And where did I purchase and taste these wonderful British-inspired treats?
Yes. I got them at a gas station in Soweto, South Africa’s most famous township, outside of Johannesburg. And they were incredibly delicious! I mean it!
More important…on a more sombre note…Soweto was incredibly moving. I was there yesterday. I will not forget it. I urge you strongly, strongly to visit this town of two million people, now a national shrine.
The Portuguese were actually the first European visitors to South Africa; the voyages of their explorers date back to the 1400s! But it was the more recent Portuguese presence in neighboring Mozambique that contributed most strongly to the Portuguese culinary presence in South Africa–especially after 1975, when Mozambique gained independence from Portugal (most of the Portuguese in Mozambique fled to South Africa at that time). They brought with them the Mozambican style of Portuguese cuisine–saucier, spicier, sometimes fortified with African ingredients like coconut milk. It is a dizzingly delicious variation of a major European cuisine, and I highly recommend you sample it on your trip to South Africa.
PERI PERI CHICKEN
This is the most important Portuguese dish in South Africa, and there are lots of restaurants that feature it. Intriguingly, it is Portuguese food by way of Africa, thence to Portugal…thence to South Africa. The theory is that New World chilis were brought to Mozambique centuries ago by Portuguese traders–where the chilis acquired the local name peri peri. The hot little guys somehow got from Mozambique to Portugal, where they’re known as piri piri, and are used to flavor grilled chicken. In South Africa today, the nomenclature is peri peri all over again…and the country is rife with peri peri sauces, and, especially, peri peri chicken.
MOZAMBIQUE CURRIES WITH COCONUT MILK
I suspect it’s only the peri peri that makes these Portuguese…but South Africa’s Portuguese restaurants are filled with curries like these.
Another local favorite also has multi-continental implications. Fejoiada is Brazil’s national dish, originally created by Brazilian slaves: a luscious black-bean stew, brimming with secret cuts of pig, partnered with oranges, greens, dried cassava flour, etc. It is a big deal in Brazil. It is not a big deal in Portugal where a bean-and-meat stew is often offered as a side dish to the main courses. The South African version is much more like the Portuguese version…
I highly recommend a Portuguese night out in South Africa, if only for gaining an understanding of yet another set of flavors running wild in the country’s kitchens.
Obviously, what we think of as Indian flavors and Indian spices are very prevalent in many parts of South African cooking. I am told that there’s even a distinct South African style of Indian cooking, most often found in Durban (which is famous for its Indian communities)–more tightly edited, less exuberant than “Indian” Indian, more dedicated to the flavors of the main ingredient. I didn’t get to Durban…but the Indian food I had in Cape Town and Johannisberg, at restaurants with connections to India (Taj and Bukhara), was excellent.
Lastly, we come to the great unifier: braai, which simply means grilled food–though you can have a braai, you can braai some food, you can eat braai, or you can buy braai at a market.
Every group discussed above has a braai. It is a South African birthright, as beloved and emblematic as our all-American backyard barbecue. Every braai throughout the country can have elements reflecting any one of the South Africa traditions–all in the same braai!
The point is: everyone braais!
But it doesn’t have to be expensive…in fact, it’s usually not. I made sure to hit what I consider the most indigenous braai of all: grilled meat in the heart of a South African township. What an experience!!!!! Two of us and a mountain of meat…for 138 Rand, approximately 17 dollars!
This experience, at Mzoli’s in Guguletu, was so important to me…I am simply going to let the photos tell the story.
Two things you must not forget in South Africa:
1) Don’t forget to drink your Grapetiser!
2) Don’t forget to get Cledwyn for your guide!
Cledwyn works for a great company called Escape to the Cape, run by a super-organized guy named Shaheed. I would recommend, if you’re planning a trip to South Africa, that you give Shaheed a call:
And ask him if it might be possible to partner up with the king of kumbaya, Cledwyn…
South Africa’s delicious no matter how you slice it up…but breaking bread, and ribs, with a guy immersed in the very particular history of South Africa…that’s what I call a trip.
PLEASE NOTE: One week from today I’ll be posting my story on upscale South African restaurants…of which there are many! There’s world-class big deal food here! And world-class wine too! Look for my coverage later….
Photos Via: David Rosengarten