Food in South Africa is unbelievably diverse, interesting, and delicious. South African food is a mixture of centuries of different cultural influences that have been revised and passed on from generation to generation.
The result is a melting pot, literally, of mouth-watering food that has become a symbol of the essence of the nation of South Africa itself. Some of the common culinary influences in South Africa were inherited from Dutch, German, Malay, Indian, and British cuisine. With so much to eat, where do I begin?
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Top 22 South African Dishes
To help you navigate our South African food guide, we’ve divided it into three different parts. The guide includes a list of savory Meat & Seafood dishes, Sweets & Desserts, and Vegetarian dishes. You can click to go straight to the type of South African food you want to read about. Here we go!
Meat & Seafood Dishes
1. Bunny Chow
It is only appropriate that the epic Bunny Chow is at the top of this list. This delightful dish was created by the Indian community of Durban, sometime in the early 20th century, presumably. The Bunny chow, also referred to as a bunny or a quarter bunny, referring to its size, became popular by poor Indian workers who discovered a cheap and sustainable way to take their lunch to work. They would hollow out the inside of a bread loaf and fill it with curry or beans or whatever was left-over from the night before.
The bunny had quickly become a popular street food on the streets of Durban. By the time my parents were growing up in the 70s, the bunny was already a well-established meal that was sold in local kitchens, take-aways and even made at home by bunny lovers. Some argue that the original bunny would have been a vegetable dish that included beans or lentils. Today, however, the bunny has several variations that reflect the common foods eaten in Durban, like mutton curry, chicken curry, beans, and so on.
The braai is the South African name given to the universal barbeque, which is gilling meat outdoors on an open fire. This is probably one of the oldest forms of cooking in history. What makes the South African braai unique? Over the years, the braai has evolved from being a family treat to include several unique dishes and spices. Some of the common treats at a braai are Boerawors, spiced meat, and garlic bread. Garlic bread: another savory treat that is very important at a braai. It is the perfect side.
There are several variations of spices that are used in Braais from locally made Maslalas to Aromat (South African spice) and pepper glaze. Some even use beer on their braai meat, look out for that.
a unique sausage that literally means farmer’s sausage. I have no idea what goes into it. We assume that it is mostly meat but there is a great deal of fat and other less appetizing animal parts. Regarding the spices, it’s a South African secret, we can’t share with you. You can, however, buy a ready-to-use Boerawors spice which you can use to make your own.
Another South African dish that has strong Indian roots is the biryani. The true origins of biryani go back to the 15th century in India, during the rule of the Mughal Empire. Some even go further to say that biryani was imported from Perisa, even before that. What we know is that biryani made its way to South Africa with Indian immigrants in the 19th century.
The South African biryani has developed in many ways over the years, to the degree that it has become quite different from its Indian relative. The South African Biryani is usually layered, with the rice on the top and then steamed. This is unique.
5. Durban Chicken Curry
The Durban chicken curry is a tasty meal that includes loads of spices. It is a unique dish that infuses Indian spices but you won’t exactly find this very dish anywhere in India. It is a Durban specialty. It is made with onions, tomatoes, the famous ginger-garlic paste, spices, chicken pieces, and potatoes. The authentic Durban curry needs to be hot like fire. If you are not accustomed to spicy food, beware! There are other variations like the mutton or lamb curry, which are quite similar. Currys are generally served with rice and spicy pickles on the side.
Biltong is a form of dried, cured meat that is traditionally made in South Africa. It is typically made from beef and sometimes game, like ostrich. It is similar to jerky but differs in the way it is prepared and its spices. Biltong is considered a snack. it is made in different shapes and sizes and also made in different flavors.
Potjiekos literally means small pot food. It gets its name from the outdoor cast iron pot used, also known as a Potjie. Potkiekos is a mixture of vegetables, meat, and spices that are slow-cooked over a wood or coal fire. This is by no means a quick meal. It could take hours for your potjiekos to be ready, which is why it is not really a weekday meal. It is usually prepared on weekends and shared with friends.
8. Prawn Curry
The prawn curry is also well known in Durban as a spicey seafood meal that is loaded with flavor. The trick to a prawn curry is to achieve the perfect balance between the natural flavor of the prawns and the repertoire of spices that are used. The prawn curry is a common dish served at seafood restaurants across Durban and along the East-coast.
9. Sosaties (Kebab)
Originally a Cape Malay braai skewer, Sosaties are cubes of lamb or beef grilled on an open fire. The skewers include onions, dried apricots, and mixed peppers. The sosatie is a sweet-sour meal of sorts, characteristic of traditional Cape Malay cuisine. The sosatie marinade is made from apricot jam, curry powder, and garlic.
10. Cape Malay Chicken Curry
Cape Malay Chicken Curry is one of these worth mentioning curry dishes. In South Africa, you can get really delicious curries: Malay, Indian, Pakistani… you name it. However, Cape Malay Curry is unique. It is a fusion of traditional South African curry and Malay cooking style and traditions. The chicken is so tender and full of Masala and tomato sauce flavor.
Bobotie is made with minced meat, dried fruit, and spices. It is a purely South African delicacy that is topped off with a savory egg-based custard and bay leaves then baked in an oven until the custard is ready.
South Africa is a big producer of oysters. They even have an Oyster festival every year in July in which they organize oyster-eating contests, oyster-themed tours, and oyster farm visits.
Sweets & Desserts
13. Malva pudding
Malva Pudding is one of the most loved South African baked desserts. The delicious recipe from the Cape Peninsula is a Dutch recipe by origin. Malva Pudding is a spongy brown cake soaked in syrup and custard and sometimes jam.
14. Melktert (Milk Tart)
This was by far one of my favorite things in the world when I was growing up. Milktart is the default dessert or treat that is mandatory on the dessert table of any occaision. As a child, I remember buying small milktarts from the tuckshop at school on Fridays. It was the highlight of my week. Basically, milktart consists of milk, condensed milk and sugar, set into a tart and topped with cinnamin powder. It is to die for.
A famous Cape Malay treat is Koeksisters. This is a type of donut, spiced with cardamom, dipped in syrup, and then dipped in coconut. It sounds weird, I know. But words can’t do justice to how good koeksisters really are. Knowing how to make koeksisters is a gift and an honor. There is no door that a fresh plate of koeksisters can’t open.
16. Peppermint Crisp Tart
South Africans love Peppermint Crisp Tart. Kids and adults all go crazy for this very popular South-African pudding and that is why I made sure to include it in my list. It is simply a delicious and easy-to-make dessert. Honestly, it does not look like much until you taste it. Peppermint Crisp Tart is a cold tart made of layers of a famous South African biscuit Called Tennis, cream, and peppermint crisp. What is Peppermint crisp? Well, it is a popular chocolate bar in South Africa that has a strong minty taste. It is commonly used for baking cakes and other treats.
Chakalaka, which goes well with pap, is a vegetarian mix of beans, tomatoes, relish and other vegetables, depending on the region of South Africa. An important ingridient is the spicey chilli. Some say that Chakalaka was a dish first consumed by the Mozambican laborers, who gave it a Portugese inspired taste. Anyhow, it has become a popular dish all over South Africa.
18. Pap or phuthu (maize flour)
Pap is the staple food in South Africa. It is a coarse white flour made from maize (mealies). It is relatively cheap and can be stored for a long period of time without being kept in a fridge. It is eaten as a substitute for bread, which is more expensive and not traditionally home-made, and rice. For those who are less fortunate, phuthu serves as a meal on its own, served with butter and salt.
19. Marog (Green)
Marog is a well-known traditional food in South Africa. Marog leaves are used as spinach. Local people in South Africa handpick the leaves from the fields and prepare them with potato, onion, salt, and pepper. Marog is usually served alongside Pap (porridge)
20. Gatsby (sandwich)
Gatsby is a popular street food sandwich in South Africa, specifically in Cape Town. The sandwich consists of a french-style bread roll filled with chips, different filling (fried fish, steak, or polony sausage), and dressed up with pickles and Peri Peri hot sauce. The Gatsby makes for a good lunch on a beach day!
21. Kota (Sandwich)
The inexpensive Kota sandwich is a favorite quick meal for tourists looking for local food experiences in South Africa. Kota means “quarter” referring to the quarter of the loaf break making the sandwich. Street vendors make Kota by hollowing a piece of loaf bread, filling it with a layer of french fries, and then adding extra layers of meat, cheese, egg, and sauce. It is similar to the concept of the Bunny chow.
22. Vetkoek (Bread)
Vetkoek bread is a part of South African food culture. The word vetkoek literally means “fat cake” in Afrikaans. Vetkoek is made by frying the yeast dough to make round bread buns like a burger. The traditional Veltkoek bread is usually served alongside Boerewors or during Braais. You can also find it stuffed with curry mince in takeaway restaurants and fast food shops.
Which one of these foods would you try in South Africa? Is our South African food bucket list missing a dish that we need to try on our next trip? Please let us know in the comments below!
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