South Africa is the land of diversity. Its people, landscapes, cultures and languages offer a melting pot of intrigue and excitement. In addition, it has a long and complex history. All of this combines to create the modern mix of cuisine that defines this land, delighting locals and visitors alike in its range and flavours.

South African Food and Cuisine

South African cuisine is a unique fusion of many different external cultural influences. These include Dutch, French, Indian and Malaysian flavours and techniques that continue to make their way onto the menus of restaurants and into the homes of locals all over the country. This has translated to a smorgasbord of textures, tastes and aromas that lure visitors back to sample more of the tasty treats on offer here. One of the most significant influences is that of the Dutch that settled in South Africa in the 1600’s. They were soon joined by French Huguenots as well as a number of Germans. This combination led to what is today known as the Afrikaans style of cooking. Because these folk traversed the country in search of places to settle, and had no sort of refrigeration devices, they were known for their dried meats (biltong, which is similar to jerky, and dröewors, a dried sausage) and their liberal use of spices and salts for the preservation of foods.

Did you know? 4.6% of all people employed in South Africa work in the travel and tourism industry. This is expected to rise up to 1 110 000 job by 2027!

Today, Afrikaans cooking typically consists of plenty of red meat (grilled, barbecued or roasted), potatoes and / or rice, and vegetables that are enhanced with butter and sugar. Desserts are popular, and are often based on old favourites that would have lasted a few days. This includes biscuits, rusks, and sugary pastries. The braai (barbecue) is one of the best known "cuisine" types in South Africa. Red meat, like spiced sausages, chops, kebabs, steaks and pork rashers are put over hot coals, infusing them with an unrivalled smoky flavour. This is a particularly social kind of cooking, since it is typically enjoyed outside and is most often undertaken by the men in the family. Side dishes include bread rolls and plenty of different kinds of salads.

The African cuisine is the widest spread of traditional fare and comprises a host of different subcultures under the "African" umbrella. These include Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, and many more. Since these folk have been indigenous to Africa for centuries, their cuisine has evolved over the years, but has also retained many of its original ingredients and cooking methods, particularly in the more rural areas. Because the indigenous African tribes have lived off the produce of the land for generations, their food was (and, to some extent, still is) defined by what was locally grown and available. This includes filling staples; such as maize, rice and potatoes; that are easily cultivated and stretch far enough to feed large families.

Vegetables are important to the African communities and include a range of green, leafy varieties. In addition, meat is an important ingredient of African cooking. Traditionally, meat has come from their own livestock. Therefore, it had to be used sparingly and wisely (and often only for special occasions). This means that stews and similar one-pot dishes that are easily created over the fire are characteristic of this type of cuisine. Famous African dishes include tripe, mieliepap (corn-based porridge usually fortified with animal fat, beans and vegetables), samp and beans, sour milk porridge, dumplings and even more adventurous dishes like Mopane worms (see Venda Cuisine).

Another very important influence is that of the Malays. These Eastern peoples were brought to South Africa as slaves for the European settlers in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. They brought with them the secrets of their marvellous cooking and delicious dishes. Due to the Apartheid years of the 20th century (and the centuries of slavery before that), they faced many hardships. This led them to stick together and strengthen their own culture, which was fast picking up influences from the other cultures around them. Today, a cuisine known as Cape Malay has infused the entire country, with particularly strong ties to the Western Cape. Spices (such as cinnamon, cardamom and coriander) and chillies are frequently used. Famous dishes include pickled fish, spicy curries and a number of different types of stew.

Of course, thanks to the enormous variety of wildlife in South Africa, some rather unusual dishes are also available here. Visitors are encouraged to sample crocodile, ostrich, kudu, sheep heads, Mopane worms, and warthog. Thanks to the cosmopolitan nature of this country, the restaurants of South Africa offer a wide variety of international cuisine types too. These vary from Eastern favourites (Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and so on) to German eateries, English cafés, Moroccan food stalls and American-style diners. Still, while in South Africa, visitors are urged to try some of the local flavours to get a real idea of its culture.

Suggestions for those wanting a taste of South Africa

  1. Biltong (dried, cured meat that originated in South Africa)
  2. Bobotie (a Cape Malay version of Shepherd's Pie)
  3. Boerewors (seasoned sausage)
  4. Bredie (well known varieties include tomato bredie and waterblommetjie bredie)
  5. Potjiekos (an Afrikaans stew cooked in a three-legged cast-iron pot)
  6. Melktert (milk tart)
  7. Koeksisters (a syrupy braided pastry)
  8. Samoosas (a triangular Indian pastry filled with meat and/or vegetables)
  9. Pickled fish
  10. Sosaties (marinated kebabs that are cooked over the open flame)

Additional Reading

South Africa. Explore. Experience. Stay® has been assisting travellers with their South Africa travel plans since 1999, and is the largest, independent online travel guide for South Africa available in both English and German.