South Africa‘s food is a melting pot of cuisines. Every nationality that settled in the southern section of the continent brought its own food culture. Dutch, Malay, German, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Indian … all have contributed to a complex culinary mix that today is contemporary rather than traditional.
Those that have kept their identity are cuisines with an unmistakable character. Italian restaurants are ubiquitous and the Indians (who originally came to South Africa as indentured laborers to work on sugar plantations) have made curry and spices synonymous with the city of Durban.
Add to this diversity regional specialties ranging from coastal fare like mussels, rock lobster and oysters, to fresh trout from mountain streams; from lamb that has grazed on aromatic scrub in the semi-desert, to humid climes with luscious tropical fruit. Plus ostrich and big game.
The Cape was initially inhabited by Khoikhoi or Hottentot known as Strandlopers (beachcombers), who depended for sustenance on seafood and indigenous plants. Further inland, the San (or Bushman), skilled in tracking and expert with bows and arrows, had since the Stone Age hunted the herds of wild animals. With no settled lifestyle, these early inhabitants saw both game and natural foods as belonging to all. (This later caused friction over the cattle owned by white settlers, who held a distinctly proprietary view of possessions).
Northwards, and in the east, in the area now known as KwaZulu Natal, the black tribes of Africa had established villages, with a formal structure and seasonal pattern of planting, tilling and herding. Staple foods were mealies (maize) the kernels crushed to make samp, or ground between stones for a stiff porridge, plus meat. Dried insects and caterpillar-like roasted worms from mopane trees provided crunch. Vegetables were less important, though pumpkins were eaten, as well as wild greens such as a type of spinach, known as morogo, or indigenous beans like jugo and cowpeas.
Towards the end of the 17th century, the Dutch established a foothold in South Africa under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company, to provide fresh vegetables and meat for the Company’s ships plying the spice trade to India.
It was inevitable that the settlers from Europe would clash with the indigenous peoples. As land-hungry white expansion moved north and east, motivated by a desire to escape British rule after England had invaded the Cape, a similar pastoral migration south by blacks from central East Africa sandwiched the local inhabitants. Memories of this trek (journey) are enshrined in the traditional braaivleis (barbecue), a culinary art practiced by SA males – as is slow, one-pot cooking (potjiekos) over an open fire.
While food eaten by blacks remained essentially rural and meals were communal, whites introduced an urban, sophisticated cuisine from Europe. The most enduring and far-reaching influence came from Malay slaves brought to the Cape by the Dutch in the 17th century. The women, who were skilled cooks, used exotic spices to flavor dishes that blended sweet and sour ingredients.
Today Cape Malay cuisine holds prime position as authentic South African fare and variations of original recipes appear on most restaurant menus. (Don’t blanch when you see skilpad, which translates as tortoise. It is in fact sheep’s liver in caul fat). Most universal is bobotie, a lightly curried mince dish containing bay leaves, raisins, dried apricots and almonds, topped with custard and served with fruit chutney.
One of Cape Town’s idyllically located hotels, The Cellars-Hohenort, has a Cape Malay Restaurant, where visitors are led through a typical meal prepared to authentic recipes, waiters are informed and the winelist chosen to complement the spicy food. (Brommersvlei Road, Constantia. Tel +27 21 794-2137).
More quirky and redolent of history is a venue in the grounds of The Castle, the oldest surviving colonial structure in South Africa, built in 1679 and recently restored. The pump house has been converted into a restaurant, the Waterblommetjie (an edible water flower), which specializes in Cape Malay fare with a contemporary twist. (The Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town. Tel +27 21 461-4895).
The Shangana Cultural Village in Hazyview, Mpumalanga, is on show for visitors, providing a guided tour of the format and crafts of a typical village and a traditional meal (including mopane worms) cooked by the chief’s wives. (Tel +27 13 737-7000).
A convivial culinary feast is offered at the Africa Café in the historic heart of Cape Town. In an Afrocentric ambience guests share a culinary journey from the Cape to Cairo, taking in Xhosa mealie bread, Kenyan patties and Zambian bean pies – and you can buy the hand-painted crockery. (Heritage Square, Cape Town. Tel +27 21 222-0221).
Jos Baker is a distinguished South African f & w writer