Like so many inspiring food landscapes, South Africa offers meals made interesting by the collision of multiple cultures, traditions and cuisines. The indigenous population, as well as the Dutch, French, Indian and Malaysian peoples, have politically, culturally and historically impacted this part of Africa. This mélange of influences has helped form a modern cuisine that’s guaranteed to excite the palate.
South Africa boasts a favorable climate, fertile soil and teeming seas, all of which yield the fabulous ingredients in its unique cuisine. Be prepared for generous portion size and lots of high-quality meat. Although seafood is a specialty in some areas here and many South African restaurants offer up numerous meat options, the culinary scene is surprisingly accommodating toward vegetarians as well.
Cape Town, the capital, is a veritable food heaven. Star chefs, market impresarios, cheese obsessives and wine-minded restaurateurs are all gathering here—not just from around the country but around the world. They’re bringing with them a respect for tradition, an appreciation of local ingredients and dynamic perspectives on food. Few of the dishes you find here will be “traditional,” and it’ll become immediately apparent this city embraces global influence and celebrates it with exceptional local ingredients—especially where meat, seafood and locally grown fruits and vegetables are concerned.
This mind-set has spread into the wine regions beyond the big city as well, meaning just about anywhere you go in South Africa will offer up a delicious experience.
The Dining Experience in South Africa
Dining out in South Africa, particularly in Cape Town and its surrounding regions, feels similar to eating in the United Kingdom. Most of the up-and-coming restaurants are in the city centers, and exceptional dining experiences can be difficult to find in rural areas. (It’ll be far easier to find franchise and fast food restaurants in those places!)
South Africa offers a range of dining experiences—from the fanciest restaurants to the most modest food stands. In Cape Town proper, you’re bound to find globally inspired menus filled with fresh, bright ingredients and techniques. Whether you opt for upscale dining or more casual fare, you’re certain to be savoring a dish influenced by myriad cultures and traditions – a staple of the South African food picture.
Cooking Styles Unique to South Africa
South Africa enjoys many different styles of cooking, adapted from the long histories and traditions of the people who have found their way here over the centuries. Some of our favorites include:
Braai (rhymes with “dry”) is an abbreviation of braaivleis, which means “meat grill” in Afrikaans. The term, however, encompasses much more than the simple process of cooking over an open fire. A braai is a cultural event that’s 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 gallons of beer are often involved. You can braai any food item, but a traditional meal consists of healthy slabs of steak, substantial lamb cutlets and the South African specialty of boerewors (“farmer’s sausage”). Potatoes, onions and butternut squash wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in the embers usually round out the event.
● Potjiekos and Boerekos
One variant on the braai is potjiekos (poy-key-kos), or “pot food.” Using this technique, the food’s cooked in a three-legged cast iron cauldron (the potjie), preferably outdoors over an open fire. Boerekos (literally “farmer’s food”) is similar but cooked indoors. Afrikaners mainly enjoy this style of cooking. Much of what’s prepared is similar to English food but taken to cholesterol-rich extremes. (Even the vegetables are prepared with butter and sugar!) Boerekos really shines, though, with 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.
· Traditional South African food tends to revolve around a stiff grain porridge called mielie pap, or pap (pronounced “pup”). This is made from maize meal and is accompanied by meat-based or vegetable-based sauces.
· Cape Cuisine
Cape cuisine (sometimes known as Cape Malay food) typically refers to the styles of cooking brought to South Africa by Asian and Madagascan slaves. Characterized by mild, semisweet curries with strong Indonesian influences, Cape cuisine is definitely worth sampling. This is especially true in Cape Town, where it developed and is largely associated with the Muslim community. Cape cuisine is certainly delicious, but there isn’t much variety, meaning few restaurants actually specialize in it. Despite this, most of the dishes considered to be Cape cuisine have made it into the South African diet, and many have become part of the Afrikaner culinary vocabulary.
Backroads Pro Tip
The Western Cape is the world’s epicenter for ostrich farming. Because of this, ostrich meat regularly features on the menus of gourmet or touristy restaurants here. Other South African game meats you might encounter include impala, kudu, eland and even crocodile!
Regional Foods and Specialties
South Africa’s long love affair with meat, its proximity to the ocean and its agricultural history contribute to some seriously interesting (and tasty) regional delicacies:
● Fish and Chips
Cape Town’s nearness to flourishing oceans and its history of British colonial rule resulted in a deep appreciation by the locals for humble fish and chips. This reverence reveals itself in various locations—from casual street food eateries to holes-in-the-wall serving up the deep-fried meal to top-tier restaurants offering the highest quality and most meticulously prepared fish.
Few foods are truly as Capetonian as a Gatsby. It originated in the Cape Flats and dates back to the mid-70s. Technically, it’s a large submarine sandwich that comes with various fillings, including various meats, chips and sauces. Due to its size, it’s nearly almost impossible to finish. You’ll find Gatsbys on the menus at hole-in-the-wall shops and no-frills eateries.
● Bunny Chow
Perhaps nothing reveals the Indian influence in South Africa so clearly as the popularity of bunny chow. A filling fast food dish, bunny chow is half a loaf of hollowed out bread filled with curry. The meat is usually beef or chicken, and despite the unusual name, the meal has nothing to do with rabbit. Look for this dish in casual eateries.
Bobotie (buh-boor-tea) is a fragrant Cape Malay dish consisting of minced beef topped with a custard of milk and eggs and flavored with spices and dried fruit. The result is sweet and sour with a hint of spice. Dating as far back as the 17th century (introduced by Indonesian slaves were brought to Cape Town), bobotie is a particularly comforting meal on a cold winter night.
● Biltong and Droëwors
For many South Africans, this snack is a staple at the bar or on a road trip. Biltong and droëwors are made by drying meat and adding a special blend of spices. Biltong is simply cured, dried and then sliced or left in solid sticks. Droëwors is essentially a dried sausage. Biltong and droëwors of varying quality are available in all supermarkets, and they’re served as snacks at some pubs, bars and restaurants.
These deep-fried treats are either enjoyed as a crunchy, syrup-soaked braided dessert (Afrikaans heritage) or as a pillowy, spiced snack rolled in coconut (Cape Malay heritage). Both are irresistibly delicious.
Backroads Pro Tip
Cape Town has several popular African-themed restaurants that’ll leave tourists thinking zebra, kudu, springbok and warthog are regular features in each South African’s diet. While it’s true the country’s residents are big meat eaters, this usually manifests in the form of beef, pork and chicken. Wild game meat is not a regular dish served on South African tables, but it can make for an interesting one-off culinary adventure. The touristy spots in the city serve up imaginative iterations of grilled game meat, while high-end restaurants produce more considered wild game dishes.
South African Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
● Braaivleis: Any roasted meat cooked on the braai, or barbecue
● Rusk: A breakfast staple, this hard, dry biscuit is meant to be dunked in your tea or coffee.
● Sosaties: Meat (and occasionally vegetables) that have been marinated in a Cape Malay–style sauce and grilled on skewers—usually over hot coals
Words to Know When Dining Out
English is spoken widely and often in South Africa, but you might find yourself in a situation where it’s handy to know a couple of words in one of the other 11 languages spoken here. In townships and areas surrounding the larger cities, the most widely spoken of these are Afrikaans and Zulu. Here are a few phrases in each language to get you started at a local restaurant:
● Yes: Ja (Yah)
● No: Nee (kneer)
● Thank you: Dankie (Dunkey)
● Please: Asseblief (Asserbleef)
● Good-bye: Totsiens (Totseens)
● Really nice!: Lekker (Lekka)
● Go well, Good-bye or See you: Hamba kahle (kahle is pronounced “kashle”)
● Hello: Sawubona
● Food: Ukudla
● Drink: Isiphuzo
● Buy: Thenga
● Thank you: Siyabonga
It’s customary to tip for good service in South Africa. An acceptable amount is 10–15 percent. If you have six or more in your party, restaurants will generally add a gratuity to your bill. You don’t have to tip if you see a service charge added to your check. Keep in mind, though, most waitstaff members depend on tips to supplement the low wages they receive.
Dining Etiquette in South Africa
South Africa’s daily culinary timetable follows the British model. Breakfast is typically served from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.; lunch is eaten around 1:00 p.m., and dinner is around 7:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. Many South Africans still take the time to enjoy afternoon tea.
With respect to table etiquette, South Africa largely adopted Western table manners. The exception is when dining in the private home of a Muslim South African. In that instance, traditional Muslim meal practices should be followed.