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Top 15 Traditional Foods You Should Try Before Leaving South Africa

You may know South Africa as the birthplace of icons such as Nelson Mandela and Elon Musk, and as a land rich in natural resources, but it’s also home to a diverse cuisine. Some of the most popular food in South Africa have been influenced by years of colonialism and immigration, both regional and international, and reflect the rich history that is the story of South Africa.

Before you leave South Africa, be sure to get a taste of some of the popular foods to explore this historic nation through your palate. Once you get a true taste of South Africa, you may never want to leave!

Here are some ideas of the traditional and popular food in South Africa: 

What is South African Cuisine?

Vetkoek fried donuts cape malay bobotie lamb Potjiekos amarula drink
Top: By AS Food studio / By GMCampos/Shutterstock.com Bottom: By Ehrman Photographic / By David Buzzard/Shutterstock.com

Prior to colonization, South Africa’s cuisine  consisted primarily of wild game and plants, including fruits, nuts and bulbs. It wasn’t until the Bantus arrived that the domestication of cattle introduced consistent meat dishes paired with harvests of grain such as millet and sorghum, and dried fruit, especially apricot.

Mastering meat preservation meant that meat formed the base of many South African dishes, especially beef, but also sheep and goat, which were combined with ingredients such as pumpkin, cabbage and white potatoes to make stews. 

By the time the Europeans (Dutch and British) arrived, and the Malay diaspora was established, South African cuisine featured spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice. The European settlers were also responsible for revolutionizing the already existing beer industry, and today, it is popular amongst laborers and citizens alike. The French brought wines and many traditional culinary practices that are still present. 

Later, immigration by Asian indentured laborers helped to popularize rice dishes and introduced savory foods such as chutneys, curries and sambal. 

Many of the popular food in South Africa today represent the history of colonization and immigration. They are prepared in homes and resorts, and are offered in fast-food restaurant chains.

Popular Food in South Africa: Top Snacks / Appetisers to Try

1. Bunny chow

bunny-chow-south-african-style-food-lamb
By Jonathan Oberholster/Shutterstock.com

Firstly, bunny chow is not made from innocent bunnies. It was introduced by Indian indentured laborers in Durban who thought this was a great way to transport their lunches to the plantations. The Indians hollowed out loaves of bread and traditionally stuffed them with Durban curry, which was made of kidney beans, chicken, lamb or mutton. This cheap, yet inventive dish does not require utensils, and is enjoyed by tearing off bits of the bowl (bread) and dipping in the curry.

Today, bunny chow has surpassed the South African borders and is enjoyed in different parts of the world. It may also be enjoyed with a side of rice or vegetables. 

2. Sosaties

sosaties-chicken-kebabs-delicious-grilling
By Dewald Kirsten/Shutterstock.com

Sosaties comes from the words ‘sate’ meaning ‘skewered meat’ and ‘saus’ meaning ‘spicy sauce’. It is generally served as street food, but also acts as an appetizer in restaurants. Sosaties is the South African version of kebabs, which involves a skewer filled with meats and vegetables. Meats include beef, lamb, chicken, crayfish or sausages.

Sosaties are popularly made at a braai. South Africans gather at a braai with family and friends to cook their favorite meats atop an open fire. This tradition originated in the city of Johannesburg where butchers used to cook their meat and sell it to passers-by. Braai is the Afrikaans word for ‘grilling’ or ‘barbeque’. Many popular food in South Africa are prepared at a braai.

3. Biltong

african-snack-cured-meat-biltong
Left: By GillianVann/Shutterstock.com Right: By MD_Photography/Shutterstock.com

Biltong is a popular food in South Africa that will bring you back to the days of the indigenous tribes that preserved meat from animals such as ostrich, antelope, buffalo and other game. The name “biltong” actually comes from the Dutch words ‘bil’ and ‘tong’ meaning ‘buttock’ and ‘strip/tongue’ respectively. Today, the most popular type of biltong is made with beef and is quite similar to beef jerky. Biltong is, however, much thicker and chewier than beef jerky, and has a unique intense flavor, unlike the sweet versions of beef jerky produced worldwide.

Traditionally, biltong is cured with vinegar, then seasoned with salt, pepper, coriander, nutmeg and chili before being left to air dry. It is the perfect snack for long car rides and camping trips as it was originally a survival food. It is now added to various South African dishes. 

4. Bokkoms

Bokkoms (dried fish) South Africa hanging roadside stall
By Madelein Wolfaardt/Shutterstock.com

Bokkoms is a popular food in South Africa made of skinned mullet fish that are left to dry before being salted and sometimes smoked for preservation purposes. This snack originated in the western coastal region of South Africa, and comes from the Dutch word ‘bok’ which translates to ‘goat’ in English. It was so named because the drying mullet fish resemble and are as tough as goat horns. They smell just as bad too.

Bokkoms may be enjoyed as a snack; it is also often added to pasta and soups. It is considered a delicacy in South Africa, especially because of restrictions placed on fishing mullet. If you are lucky enough to be offered this popular food in South Africa, take it while you have the chance!

Popular Food in South Africa: Top Main Courses One Must Try

5. Bobotie

South African-minced-meat-bobotie-with-spoon-rice
By BBA Photography/Shutterstock.com

The origins of bobotie are uncertain since many debate whether it is Asian in origin or Dutch. What we know for certain though is that it is a popular food in South Africa served as dinner, and is comfort food. Bobotie is considered the national dish of South Africa. It consists of minced meat (usually beef) spiced with curry, turmeric, onions, peppers, salt, herbs and dried fruits. The name comes from the Malay word, ‘boemboe’, meaning ‘curry spices’.

The way bobotie is prepared will vary by household, but it is usually topped with an egg-based milk mixture before being baked until set. Bobotie is usually served with yellow rice and vegetables to make a complete meal and may even be topped with apricot jam and nuts.

6. Chakalaka 

spicy-vegetable-dish-chakalaka-close-up
By Fanfo/Shutterstock.com

Chakalaka is the go-to vegetarian dish in South Africa. It is made of vegetables such as pumpkin, onion, carrot, tomato, pepper, chilli and beans. Its name literally means a relish created from onions, tomatoes and spices. This spicy dish is usually served cold, and pairs well with pap, a sort of porridge or mash, similar to what Americans refer to as ‘grits’. Chakalaka is said to have originated in Johannesburg, and since then has become a staple in South African diets, often served at braais. 

7. Boerewors 

grilled-boerewors-tomatoes-raw-boerewors
Left: By Ingmarsan/Shutterstock.com Right: By Wild Drago/Shutterstock.com

Boerewors, or ‘farmer’s sausage’, is a must-have at braais. It forms the base of many popular meals in South Africa. Traditionally served in a coil shape, boerewors consists of meats such as beef, pork or lamb, and a mixture of spices such as cloves, coriander or nutmeg. Although this sausage exists in variations, for it to be considered authentic, boerewors must consist of 90% meat, primarily beef, which should not contain more than 30% fat. 

8. Potjiekos

Potjiekos South African oxtail stew baby potatoes carrots mushrooms
By Ezume Images/Shutterstock.com

The word ‘potjeikos’ translates to ‘small pot food’ in English. Its origins are South African and were created by travelers who were limited to a single pot in their cargo. This dish of necessity meant that meat such as lamb or pork was combined with vegetables such as broccoli, carrot, mushroom, cauliflower and peppers, and slow-cooked over an open flame in a three legged cast iron pot. Unlike other stews, potjiekos are not stirred during cooking, and the flavors and textures are easy to distinguish. It is served with rice or potatoes. 

9. Biryani

beef-biryani-alluminum-casserole-yogurt dip
By vm2002/Shutterstock.com

Biryani comes from the Persian word ‘biryan’ which means ‘fried before cooking’. It is a popular food in South Africa composed of shredded or minced meat, such as beef, chicken, goat, prawn, lamb or fish. The meat is cooked with Indian spices, as is the rice; the meat and rice are later combined. Biryani is Muslim in origin, but it is a popular food in South Africa to which locals have added their own twist, including lentils and vegetables, and sometimes eggs.

Popular Food in South Africa: The Most Famous Desserts

10. Melktert

Melktert Milk tart traditional South African custard cinnamon sprinkled tart
By Madele/Shutterstock.com

Melktert is the Afrikaans word for “milk tart”. It is one of the most famous desserts in South Africa, and even has its own day! (February 27th). The recipe for melktert comes from the Dutch mattentart and resembles a pie. Its sweet pastry crust is filled with eggs, milk and sugar, which is then thickened with flour and dusted with a layer of cinnamon. It is usually enjoyed on holidays and at celebrations after hearty meals, and every family has its own variations.

Today, melktert is served in restaurants and is even on sale in supermarkets so it won’t be hard to locate this popular food in South Africa.

11. Malva pudding

Malva-pudding-south-african-dessert-ice-cream-and-cherries
By Punctu8/Shutterstock.com

Malva pudding is another famous South African dessert we have to thank the Dutch for. It is a sweet sponge cake consisting of apricot jam, typically served with a cream sauce on top. The name ‘malva’ is thought to have come from the Afrikaans word ‘malvalekker’, which translates to ‘marshmallow’ in English. This is fitting, since the pudding’s texture may be likened to that of a marshmallow.

Different variations of malva pudding exist, and you may find it with ginger, dates or even brandy. It is often served alone, but pairs well with vanilla ice cream and custard. Malva pudding is usually baked on Sundays in South African households, but it can be found in restaurants and cafes also. 

12. Koeksisters

South African Koeksisters sticky fried donut
By AS Food studio/Shutterstock.com

Koeksisters are the South African version of donuts, enjoyed right across the country. The name originates from the Dutch word for cookies/biscuits, ‘koekje’ and ‘sisters’ is thought to have come from an oral tradition of sisters plaiting the donuts before dipping them in syrup. The dough is twisted into strips, then fried, before being dipped into a bath of cinnamon/sugar syrup, or honey, ginger, and lemon. They are crunchy on the outside yet are soft and delicate on the inside.

Koeksisters are enjoyed as both street food and dessert, and come with different toppings, of which sweet, shredded coconut seems to be a South African favorite. 

Popular Drinks in South Africa

13. Amarula 

marula-plant-made-drink-amarula in bottles on shelves
By Roxane 134/Shutterstock.com

Amarula is made from the marula plant, which is native to South Africa. Otherwise known as the elephant tree because of their love for the fruit, marulas are hand-picked, distilled, then aged, before being combined with sugar and cream. The result is a rich cream liquor, with undertones of vanilla and spices. Amarula is best enjoyed chilled as a cocktail blended with whiskey, vodka or ice cream. 

14. Rooibos 

South African herbal-rooibos-red-bush-tea-pot
By GreenArt/Shutterstock.com

Rooibos, or “red bush/tea”, is unique to the Western and Northern Capes of South Africa. Its distinctive reddish-brown color comes from a process of oxidation, which enhances the flavor of the tea. It was initially brewed as a cheaper alternative to European black tea. It is loaded with antioxidants said to offer anti-aging benefits and support overall health.

Rooibos is usually served hot, and is usually combined with lemon, sugar, honey and/or milk, or combined with other teas to enhance the flavor. Don’t be surprised if you can add it to iced teas, cappuccinos or lattes.

15. Umqombothi (Zulu traditional beer)

zulu-umqombothi-traditional-beer-man-pouring-beer
Left: By Lucian Coman/Shutterstock.com Right: By Jonathan Oberholster/Shutterstock.com

Umqombothi is a version of South African traditional beer made from maize, corn, yeast, maize malt, sorghum malt and water. It is brewed following customs that vary between regions. It has a thick, gritty consistency and sour aroma. Traditionally, this drink was brewed by women, but reserved for men. It is cheaper than most commercial beer, however, it has a low alcohol content of roughly 3%. Umqombothi is rich in Vitamin B, but it lacks many of the other nutrients present in commercially produced beer.

Today, umqombothi remains a part of South African celebrations, playing a key part in certain religious and ancestral ceremonies, village meetings, weddings and funerals. Note that standing while drinking umqombothi is considered rude, so have a seat when enjoying this one!

Conclusion

Your mission now is to try every popular food in South Africa before you leave. South African meals are a meat-lover’s delight, but there are also vegetarian versions of many of them to try. 

Enjoy them with local beverages to get the full South African experience, then top them off with South African desserts! 

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