The cultural melting pot of South African cuisine

| March 22, 2016 | 0 Comments
Bobotie is a well-known spicy and sweet South Africa dish made of minced meat and bread. (Photo: Larry Dickenson)

Bobotie is a well-known spicy and sweet South Africa dish made of minced meat and bread. (Photo: Larry Dickenson)

South Africa regards itself as one of the cradles of mankind, a claim endorsed by the discovery of 117,000-year-old footprints just north of Cape Town. Referred to as the “Rainbow Nation,” it offers a unique diversity in its cuisine, rooted in the evolution of a rich culinary history based on its people surviving life in the bush. It was later enriched by the migration of the Bantu people from the north, before being amplified by an infusion of foreigners — Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, Germans, Indians, Malaysians, Indonesians and Chinese.
The earliest recorded inhabitants in South Africa were the San or Bushmen, nomadic hunter-gatherers who survived on foods such as crayfish, tortoises, coconuts and squash. Then, about 2,000 years ago, a second group, the Khoekhoen, who were pastoral and somewhat nomadic herders, reached the Cape after steadily migrating southward. They raised sheep, goats and cattle to provide a stable, balanced diet and enable them to dwell in larger groups in areas formerly occupied by the San.

Tomato bredie is a traditional South African dish, named for its principal vegetable ingredient. (Photo: Tibor Kelemen)

Tomato bredie is a traditional South African dish, named for its principal vegetable ingredient. (Photo: Tibor Kelemen)

Khoisan became a unifying name for these two groups. There was some intermarriage, but the San continued to be hunter-gatherers and the Khoekhoen continued to raise livestock. Over time, however, some Khoekhoen gave up their pastoral lifestyle and adopted the hunter-gatherer culture of the San, probably due to a drying climate and their region’s lack of suitable animals for domestication. The physical and cultural evolution of the Khoisan was different from that of others in Africa.
Bantu natives from further north in Africa, who also gradually migrated southward and began arriving in South Africa in the 9th Century, introduced the practice of modern agriculture. The Khoisan, who really didn’t farm, then adopted the domesticated sheep and cattle of the Bantu. As a result, meat and milk play major roles in traditional African cuisine. Drying was a method of preserving meat without refrigeration, as was souring milk. Both practices are still in use. The Bantu also taught the Khoisan to grow vegetables such as squash, sweet potatoes and corn — the latter is known as “mealies.” The Bantu intermarried with the Khoisan and became the dominant South African population before the Dutch arrived in 1652.

Non-Africans arrive
Although the Portuguese had made brief stops at the Cape on their journeys to and from the lucrative spice-trading destinations of East Africa and India since 1488, it was the Dutch East India Company in 1652 that realized the value of establishing a secure base for ships to shelter and replenish supplies of meat, fruit and vegetables for their onward voyages. Soon, a Dutch settlement was established with gardens producing potatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, watermelons and pineapples. Simultaneously, with the increased trade of the Dutch East India Company between Europe, South Africa and India, a demand for slave labour to work on farms and in the fishing industry emerged. The slaves — primarily from India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Madagascar — brought their own cuisines to South Africa’s culinary mix. In 1688, French Calvinists, known as Huguenots, fearing persecution by King Louis XIV, fled to South Africa. During the 18th Century, the Dutch, challenged by the British, saw their global power decline. And by the beginning of the 19th Century, the Cape was shifting back and forth between Dutch and British rule.
The slaves introduced a variety of spices, which boosted the flavour of normally bland Dutch and English stews and other dishes such as Boer Chicken Pie, which features abundant seasoning and is topped with eggs and ham. The Dutch and Germans introduced baked goods and pastries while the most notable British contribution was meat pies. Although the first recorded wine was produced in 1659 by the Cape colony’s Dutch founder, Jan van Riebeeck, the arrival of the French Huguenots 30 years later launched the production of wine, an industry that began to make a mark on the world stage.

What is South African cuisine today?
South African cuisine is an amalgamation of traditional African cuisine and the cuisines of the foreigners who’ve shaped its history. Dried and roasted meat remain favourites among all South Africans, regardless of descent. Biltong is much like beef jerky, but may also be prepared with game meat such as kudu, antelope, ostrich or eland. It is sun-dried, salted and spiced. Biltong, along with the ever-popular beskuits, which are dried, sweet, rusk-like biscuits, counted as essential staples for the Voortrekkers — the African and Dutch word for pioneers — who moved into the interior of South Africa in what is historically referred to as the Great Trek. Today, pieces of biltong and dried fruit serve as an enjoyable snack. Braais or barbecues, a much-loved recreational activity, is an ancient practice that has been elevated to an art form in South Africa. Frequently, braais feature sosaties, which are similar to kebabs of meat — usually lamb — spiced in different ways. It is marinated, grilled on skewers and served with sauce and biscuits. Sosaties and a variety of sausages are meal-time favourites.
From personal experience, South African sausages could become addictive. Imagine boerewors, highly spiced, often a mixture of pork, mutton and beef, seasoned with a gamut of spices plus red wine or vinegar, or droewors, a thin sun-dried sausage version of biltong, but without pork because it does not keep well. Frikkadels, a cross between a small hamburger and a meatball, at times wrapped in cabbage leaves, pop with flavours of nutmeg and coriander.
Another traditional South African outdoor way of cooking uses a potjie, a large three-legged cast-iron pot set over coals or charcoal. A traditional stew cooked in a potjie is referred to as a potjiekos in the northern area and as “bredie” in the Cape. Early pioneers simmered potjiekos in a potjie for hours, adding meat, vegetables and wild plants, plus whatever was available. Today, combinations of foods make delectable potjiekos — seafood with white fish and mussels; lamb shank with beetroot; and chicken. The potjiekos are usually named after the principal vegetable ingredient, even though they include meat and vegetables — tomato bredie has slightly caramelized tomatoes and meat; sugarbeet bredie is a relative of the French cassoulet; and carrot bredie is made with flavourful mashed carrots. Traditionally, pot bread, a classic South African yeast bread, made with honey and baked in a cast-iron pan, accompanies these stews.
A meaty national dish
Generally recognized as South Africa’s national dish, a meat pie known as bototie symbolizes the melting pot of South Africa’s “rainbow of nations,” from the indigenous rearing and eating of beef, the Dutch settlers’ culinary practices and the spices brought by slaves and trading ships. Bototie recipes and techniques differ widely, but the most authentic and traditional ones incorporate minced beef or lamb or ostrich, plus six key ingredients: bread soaked in milk, raisins, apricot jam, curry powder, cinnamon and bay leaves. Used in harmony, these ingredients create a particular balance of spicy and sweet flavours, where sweetness should not overpower the dish. The consistency varies from that of stiff meatloaf to something softer and is eaten with geel rys, a spicy yellow rice. As a condiment with bobotie, South Africans delight in serving blatjang, similar to a smooth fruit chutney made of apricots, peaches and chilies for added heat. Its versatility as an additive for curries, stews and other dishes makes it a staple in South African kitchens.
Seafood, harvested along the coastline of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, continues to be a dietary staple. Hake, the most common fish, typically ends up as a fish and chips meal. Rock lobster, mussels, octopus and cod tend to be more available on the southern tip.
Another staple is putupap or pap, a mealy porridge; however, before the introduction of corn, sorghum was used and generally eaten with vegetable and meat stews. Pap comes in many variations — slap pap is a runnier, softer breakfast porridge; stywe pap is a thick paste-like version similar to mashed potatoes that proves ideal for mopping up stew with one’s fingers; and phutu pap is a drier, slightly crumbly polenta-like version.
In the language of the Zulu and Hosa, the word amasi refers to fermented milk that tastes like yogurt or cottage cheese (in Afrikaans, the word is mass.) Traditionally, preparation entails fermenting unpasteurized cow’s milk in a hide sack or a calabash, draining off the watery umlaza from the thick liquid, amasi, which is primarily poured over pap or drunk straight. South Africans rarely consume fresh milk, which they refer to as as green milk, except as a thinning agent for very thick amasi. Zulus believe that amasi is the tonic that empowers men to be strong, healthy and, most important, desirable. Even Nelson Mandela enjoyed amasi. In fact, it once almost exposed his hiding place when he was sought by the apartheid government. Fortunately, he overheard two Zulu workers mentioning how strange indeed to see milk left out on the windowsill to ferment in an area inhabited by whites.

A produce-friendly climate
The mild climate of South Africa enables the production of a wide range of fruits and vegetables. The most common are corn, potatoes, cabbage, peppers, green beans and sunflowers, plus a wild spinach known as morogo. Common side dishes would be mealy corn soup; corn on the cob; green bean salads; yams; geel rys; atjar, which are pickled fruits and vegetables; and condiments such as chopped vegetables and chutneys. For a snack, South Africans consider mashonzha, which are mopane worms similar to caterpillars, a traditional delicacy, if not an acquired taste. They come fried, grilled or stewed and are served in markets with a chili sauce or peanuts.
South Africans, renowned for their hospitality, offer a choice of drinks — beer, perhaps even mechow or umqombothi, a traditional thick, creamy, slightly gritty and mildly sour African beer made with maize or sorghum; a wide variety of wines; Van Der Hum liqueur, a blend of brandy, wine, orange peel and spices; a powerful homemade fruit brandy similar to American moonshine; and the after-dinner Amarula Cream, a cream liqueur made from fruit of the marula tree. Reportedly, monkeys, baboons and elephants who eat the rotting fruit in the wild get drunk.
Fresh fruit, puddings and cakes conclude a meal. Originally created by Dutch settlers in the Cape, malva pudding, a soft, moist, delicate sponge cake, claims to be an authentic South African dessert. Popular as well are the glistening and oh-so-sweet koeksisters — which is pronounced “cook sisters.” These delicacies are deep-fried cousins of the doughnut that have been dipped in a sugar syrup. The light melktart, a custard tart made of milk and eggs with a cinnamon topping to accentuate the milky flavour, is another popular option.
Now, I invite you to celebrate South African cuisine by saluting its culinary heritage with my version of the country’s national dish, bobotie. Bon appétit!

Makes about 4 one-cup (250 mL) servings

3/4 slice of dense white bread
2/3 cup (170 mL) milk, divided
1 lb (450 g) minced lean beef
1/3 cup (80 mL) chopped onion
1/3 cup (80 mL) peeled and chopped tart apple
1/4 cup (60 mL) raisins
3 tbsp (45 mL) slivered toasted almonds
1½ tsp (8 mL) each of apricot jam, peach chutney and curry powder
3/4 tsp (4 mL) salt
½ tsp (3 mL) each of cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, lemon juice and lemon zest
Dash of both cumin and ground cloves
2 tsp (10 mL) oil, divided
3/4 tsp (4 mL) of both minced garlic and grated gingerroot (peeled)
3 bay leaves
2 eggs
1 cup (250 mL) peach chutney (in addition to above)

1. Soak bread in only 1/4 cup (60 mL) milk for 15 minutes, squeeze dry and set milk aside.
2. In a large bowl, thoroughly mix together beef and soaked bread (torn apart) before stirring in onion, apple, raisins, almonds, jam, chutney (1½ tsp or 8 mL), curry powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, lemon juice, zest, cumin and cloves.
3. Heat only 1 tsp (5 mL) of oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-low heat; add garlic and ginger and sautée for about a minute, stirring constantly.
4. Add beef mixture, stirring constantly just until meat is no longer pink.
5. Transfer mixture to a lightly oiled (1 tsp or 5 mL) cast-iron frypan or oven-proof baking dish. Level the surface before pushing in the bay leaves.
6. Thoroughly whisk together the eggs with the remaining milk and the milk set aside from soaking the bread; pour it evenly over the surface of the meat.
7. Bake in a preheated 350 °F (180 °C) oven just until the bobotie sets (about 40 minutes).
8. Serve with peach chutney, and if desired, a flavourful rice and freshly cooked vegetables, including corn on the cob.

Margaret Dickenson is a cookbook
author, TV host, menu/recipe developer, protocol, business and etiquette instructor. (

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Category: Delights

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Margaret Dickenson wrote the awardwinning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining (

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