South Africa doesn’t really have a coherent indigenous cuisine, although attempts have been made to elevate Cape Cuisine to this status. The one element that seems to unite the country is a love of meat. It’s also well worth paying attention to South Africa’s vast array of seafood, which includes a wide variety of fish, lobster (crayfish), oysters and mussels. Locally grown fruit and vegetables are generally of a high standard.
There is no great tradition of street food and people on the move tend to pick up a pie or chicken and chips from one of the fast-food chains. Drinking is dominated by South Africa’s often superb wines and by a handful of unmemorable lagers. In the cities, and to a far lesser extent beyond them, there are numerous excellent restaurants where you can taste a spectrum of international styles.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner
South Africa’s daily culinary timetable follows the British model. Most B&Bs, hotels and guesthouses serve a breakfast of eggs with bacon and usually some kind of sausage. Muesli, fruit, yoghurt, croissants and pastries are also becoming increasingly popular. Lunch is eaten around 1pm and dinner in the evening around 7pm or 8pm; the two can be pretty much interchangeable as far as the menu goes, usually along the lines of meat, chicken or fish and veg: in fact, any of the dishes mentioned here.
Styles of cooking
Traditional African food tends to focus around stiff grain porridge called mielie pap or pap (pronounced: “pup”), made of maize meal and accompanied by meat or vegetable-based sauces. Among white South Africans, Afrikaners have evolved a style of cooking known as boerekos, which can be heavy-going if you’re not used to it.
Some of the best-known South African foods are mentioned here. For a list of South African culinary terms, including other local foods, see Food and drink.
Braai (which rhymes with “dry”) is an abbreviation of braaivleis, an Afrikaans word translated as “meat grill”. More than simply the process of cooking over an outdoor fire, however, a braai is a cultural event arguably even more central to the South African identity than barbecues are to Australians. A braai is an intensely social event, usually among family and friends and accompanied by gallons of beer. It’s also probably the only occasion when you’ll catch an unreconstructed South African man cooking.
You can braai anything, but a traditional barbecue meal consists of huge slabs of steak, lamb cutlets and boerewors (“farmer’s sausage”), a South African speciality. Potatoes, onions and butternut squash wrapped in aluminium foil and placed in the embers are the usual accompaniment.
Potjiekos and boerekos
A variant on the braai is potjiekos – pronounced “poy-key-kos” – (pot food), in which the food is cooked in a three-legged cast-iron cauldron (the potjie), preferably outdoors over an open fire. In a similar vein, but cooked indoors, is boerekos, (literally “farmer’s food”), a style of cooking enjoyed mainly by Afrikaners. Much of it is similar to English food, but taken to cholesterol-rich extremes, with even the vegetables prepared with butter and sugar. Boerekos comes into its own in its variety of over-the-top desserts, including koeksisters (plaited doughnuts saturated with syrup) and melktert (“milk tart”), a solid, rich custard in a flan case.
Styles of cooking brought to South Africa by Asian and Madagascan slaves have evolved into Cape Cuisine (sometimes known as Cape Malay food). Characterized by mild, semi-sweet curries with strong Indonesian influences, Cape Cuisine is worth sampling, especially in Cape Town, where it developed and is associated with the Muslim community. Dishes include bredie (stew), of which waterblommetjiebredie, made using water hyacinths, is a speciality; bobotie, a spicy minced dish served under a savoury custard; and sosaties, a local version of kebab using minced meat. For dessert, dates stuffed with almonds make a light and delicious end to a meal, while malva pudding is a rich combination of milk, sugar, cream and apricot jam.
Although Cape Cuisine can be delicious, there isn’t that much variety and few restaurants specialize in it. Despite this, most of the dishes considered as Cape Cuisine have actually crept into the South African diet, many becoming part of the Afrikaner culinary vocabulary.
Other ethnic and regional influences
Although South Africa doesn’t really have distinct regional cuisines, you will find changes of emphasis and local specialities in different parts of the country. KwaZulu-Natal, for instance, particularly around Durban and Pietermaritzburg, is especially good for Indian food. The South African contribution to this great multifaceted tradition is the humble bunny chow, a cheap takeaway consisting of a hollowed-out half-loaf of white bread originally filled with curried beans, but nowadays with anything from curried chicken to sardines.
Portuguese food made early inroads into the country because of South Africa’s proximity to Mozambique. The Portuguese influence is predominantly seen in the use of hot and spicy peri-peri seasoning, which goes extremely well with braais. The best-known example of this is delicious peri-peri chicken, which you will find all over the country.
Restaurants in South Africa offer good value compared with Britain or North America. In every city you’ll find places where you can eat a decent main course for under R100, while for R200 you can splurge on the best. All the cities and larger towns boast some restaurants with imaginative menus. Franschhoek, a small town in the Winelands, has established itself as a culinary centre for the country, where you’ll find a number of fine eating places in extremely close proximity to each other. As a rule, restaurants are licensed, but Muslim establishments serving Cape Cuisine don’t allow alcohol at all.
An attractive phenomenon in the big cities, especially Cape Town, has been the rise of continental-style cafés – easy-going places where you can eat just as well as you would in a regular restaurant, but also drink coffee all night without feeling obliged to order food. Service tends to be slick and friendly, and a reasonable meal in one of these cafés is unlikely to set you back more than R75.
Don’t confuse these with traditional South African cafés, found in even the tiniest country town. The equivalent of corner stores elsewhere, they commonly sell a few magazines, soft drinks, sweets, crisps and an odd collection of tins and dry goods, though no sit-down meals.
If popularity is the yardstick, then South Africa’s real national cuisine is to be found in its franchise restaurants, which you’ll find in every town of any size. The usual international names like KFC and Wimpy are omnipresent, as are South Africa’s own home-grown offerings, such as the American-style steakhouse chain, Spur, and the much-exported Nando’s chain, which grills excellent Portuguese-style chicken, served under a variety of spicy sauces. Expect to pay around R40 for a burger and chips or chicken meal at any of these places, and twice that for a good-sized steak. Note that quite a few restaurants don’t have well-defined hours of business, in which case we have stated in the Guide which meals they tend to open for. Phone numbers are given where booking a table might be a good idea.
White South Africans do a lot of their drinking at home, so, for them, pubs and bars are not quite the centres of social activity they are in the US or the UK, though in the African townships shebeens (informal bars) do occupy this role. Having said that, in recent years South African drinking culture has seen a shift with a plethora of sports bars springing up, with huge screens that draw in crowds when there’s a big match on, though at other times they are relaxed places for a drink. You’ll also find drinking spots in city centres and suburbs that conform more to European-style café-bars than British pubs, and which serve booze, coffee and light meals. The closest thing to British-style pubs is the themed restaurant-bar franchises, such the Keg chain or O’Hagans Irish Pub and Grill.
Beer, wines and spirits can by law be sold from Monday to Saturday between 9am and 6pm at bottle stores (the equivalent of the British off-licence) and also at most supermarkets, although you’ll still be able to drink at a restaurant or pub outside these hours.
There are no surprises when it comes to soft drinks, with all the usual names available. What does stand out is South African fruit juice, the range amounting to one of the most extensive selections of unsweetened juices in the world. One unusual drink you might well encounter in the country’s tearooms is locally produced rooibos (or redbush) tea, made from the leaves of an indigenous plant.
Although South Africa is a major wine-producing country, beer is indisputably the national drink. Beer is as much an emblem of South African manhood as the braai and it cuts across all racial and class divisions. South Africans tend to be fiercely loyal to their brand of beer, though they all taste pretty much the same, given that the vast majority of beer in the country is produced by the enormous South African Breweries monopoly. In fact, so big is SAB that in 2002 it bought Miller Brewing, the second-largest beer producer in the US, and formed SABMiller, one of the biggest brewers in the world. The advantage for South Africans was that a number of international labels became available to supplement the pretty undistinguished and indistinguishable local offerings dominated by Castle, Hansa and Carling Black Label lagers, which are likely to taste a bit thin and bland to a British palate, though they can be refreshing drunk ice-cold on a sweltering day. According to local beer aficionados, the SAB offerings are given a good run for their money by Windhoek Lager, produced by Namibian Breweries. Other widely available SAB offerings from their international subsidiaries are Peroni, Miller Genuine Draft, Grolsch and, the best of the lot, Pilsner Urquell.
There are one or two microbreweries, best known of which are Mitchell’s in Knysna, which produces some distinctive ales, and Birkenhead in Stanford. Their beers can be found at some bottle stores and bars between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
South Africa is one of the world’s top ten winemaking countries by volume. In 2010 it overtook France to become the UK’s biggest wine supplier. Despite South Africa’s having the longest-established New World winemaking tradition (going back over 350 years), this rapid rise is remarkable for having taken place within the past two post-apartheid decades. Before that, South Africa’s isolation had led to a stagnant and inbred industry that produced heavy Bordeaux-style wines. After the arrival of democracy in 1994, winemakers began producing fresher, fruitier New World wines, but many quaffers still turned their wine-tasting noses up at them. It’s over the last ten years that things have really started to rev up, and some South African winemakers are developing excellent wines that combine the best of the Old and New Worlds.
South Africa produces wines from a whole gamut of major cultivars. Of the whites, the top South African Sauvignon Blancs can stand up with the best the New World has to offer, and among the reds it’s the blends that really shine. Also look out for red wine made from Pinotage grapes – a somewhat controversial curiosity unique to South Africa – which its detractors, perhaps unfairly, say should stay on the vine. Port is also made, and the best vintages come from the Little Karoo town of Calitzdorp along the R62. There are also a handful of excellent sparkling wines, including Champagne-style, fermented-in-the-bottle bubbly, known locally as methode cap classique (MCC).
Wine is available throughout the country, although prices rise as you move out of the Western Cape. Prices start at under R30 a bottle, and you can get something pretty decent for twice that – the vast bulk of wines cost less than R100 – but you can spend upwards of R250 for a truly great vintage. All this means that anyone with an adventurous streak can indulge in a bacchanalia of sampling without breaking the bank.
The best way to sample wines is by visiting wineries, some of which charge a small tasting fee to discourage freeloading. The oldest and most rewarding wine-producing regions are the Constantia estates in Cape Town and the region known as the Winelands around the towns of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek, which all have well- established wine routes. Other wine-producing areas include Robertson, the Orange River and Walker Bay.