Local is lekker!
Ask a Zulu, an Indian, an Afrikaner, a Griqua and a Cape “Malay” what they regard as “South African cuisine” and you will probably get five different answers. The reality is that we are a nation of settlers: apart from the Khoisan, none of today’s resident cultural groups has actually lived here for more than about 500 years. Unlike other former colonies – where a single European nation held sway – our cooking doesn’t just consist of native and one European traditions. Mzansi had both Dutch and English rulers. The Portuguese of Mozambique have also been a strong influence, as have the Germans of Namibia. Add French Huguenots, Indonesian slaves (commonly but erroneously called “Malays”), Indian indentured labourers, Italian POWs and Lithuanian Jews to the Nguni, Sotho and Venda peoples and you have the makings of a cultural and culinary “Potjiekos”.
The wealth generated by diamond and gold mining attracted entrepreneurs, traders, workers and scoundrels from all over the world, and more recently political and economic refugees from the rest of Africa have added to the cosmopolitan make-up of our nation. On a single street in a Johannesburg suburb, one finds Italian restaurants, two or three varieties of Chinese cookery, Japanese, Moroccan, French, Portuguese and Indian food, both Tandoori and Gujarati. Not far away are Congolese restaurants, Greek, even Brazilian and Korean establishments, and, everywhere, fusion, displaying the fantasies of creative chefs.
Broadly speaking then, we have a number of culinary traditions co-existing, and often cross-pollinating each other. The principal ones are:
- Cookery practiced by indigenous people, such as the Sotho, Nguni and Venda peoples.
- Cuisines introduced by colonists; initially Dutch and German (most soldiers and labourers in the VOC era were from there) and later British.
- The culinary traditions of slaves – in particular that of the Indonesians.
- The cooking of Trekboere and Voortrekkers.
- Dishes brought in by immigrants before the Union was established in 1910. The most influential cultures in this regard were French, Indian, Lebanese and Greek.
- The food of colonists in neighbouring territories, e.g. Portuguese and German.
- Inter- and post-War arrivals – principally Jews, Germans and Italians seeking a better life – brought new recipes and techniques to South Africa.
- African migrants,mainly from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, the Francophone countries and the Horn of Africa have added further diversity to our “Rainbow Cuisine”.
- Fusion of these and other cuisines happens all the time and all over.
A brief history of braai
It might come as a shock to my fellow “Boere”, but the iconic braaivleis is not a new innovation on the part of our ancestors. Chisanyama has been part of indigenous cultures for centuries. In the pre-colonial period, indigenous cuisine was characterised by the use of a very wide range of foods including fruits, nuts and bulbs gathered from wild plants and by the hunting of wild game. The introduction of domestic cattle and grain crops by Bantu speakers made fresh meat available on demand. Typical dishes included cooked grains (especially sorghum), fermented milk and roasted or stewed meat.
Maize replaced sorghum as the primary cereal in the 1800s, and there is some dispute as to whether maize, a Central American crop, arrived with European settlers or spread through Africa before white settlement via Africans returning from the Americas during the era of the slave trade. I am an adherent to the latter school of thought; the accounts of explorers and missionaries contain regular references to mealies.
For many South Africans, meat has always been the centre of any meal. The Khoisan ate roasted meat, and they also dried meat for later use. The influence of their diet is reflected in the common Southern African love of the chisanyama or braai, biltong and droëwors. Eating meat also has ritual significance in both traditional and modern South African culture. In African culture, for weddings, initiations and funerals, families will buy a live animal and slaughter it at home, and then prepare a large meal for the community or neighborhood. Participants often say that spilling the blood of the animal on the ground pleases deceased ancestors who invisibly gather around the carcass. Given the importance of cattle in traditional pastoral societies, beef is the undisputed king of meats and eating it signals wealth and/or status.
Urbanisation since the middle of the Nineteenth Century, coupled with close control over agricultural production, has led Black South Africans to rely more and more on comparatively expensive, processed foodstuffs like wheat flour, white rice, mealie meal and sugar. Before the arrival of maize from the Americas, pap was mostly made from sorghum, but maize is ubiquitous today. Certain imported crops (in particular maize, tomatoes and chillies) have been integrated to such an extent into the traditional diet that they are often assumed to be indigenous plants. Generations of poverty have left an indelible mark on African cuisine, with stews and soups containing very little meat, offal and organ meat very prominent.
Except for an eight-year British occupation during the Napoleonic wars, the Dutch ruled the Cape from 1652 to 1808. For the first 148 years it was not a colony in the true sense of the word, as it was ruled by a chartered company – the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC). The VOC used Cape Town as a halfway house for its merchant fleets en route to and from its possessions in Indonesia, Bengal and Malacca (known collectively as “Batavia”). In 1688, the largely male Dutch and German company employees and farmers were joined by about 300 French Huguenot families.
The amalgam of Dutch, German, French and East Indian cuisines became known as "Cape Dutch". The largely European cookery of the settlers was significant enhanced by Oriental influences introduced by slave cooks. Items such as rice, nutmeg, allspice, turmeric and chillies featured prominently in Cape kitchens, and condiments like chutney, achar and sambals became part of our culinary heritage. The Cape Dutch cookery style owes at least as much to the influence of slaves brought by the VOC from Batavia as it does to the European styles of cookery imported by settlers. Thanks to their contribution, curry and rice, pickled fish, smoorsnoek and curried lamb offal became firm favourites, particularly among the Afrikaans farming community.
The single most important legacy of the early Malay cooks is probably bobotie. Of the many dishes common to South Africa, bobotie is perhaps closest to being our national dish, because nothing like it is made in any other country. Its origins may be Oriental, but it evolved in the Cape. It consists of spicy minced meat – usually beef – baked with an egg-based topping, which has a golden sheen thanks to the use of turmeric. The name was derived from the Indonesian word bobotok.
Notwithstanding the important role slave cooks played in shaping Cape Dutch cuisine, it was still largely European in nature. Dutch dishes like koeksusters, malva pudding and melktert are long-standing icons, as are tamatiebredie, and German-inspired hams and boerewors. Waterblommetjiebredie is a unique Cape innovation, combining an indigenous ingredient with the North European style of cooking stews. Curing and drying of fish are ancient arts among the seafaring Dutch, and this resulted in Cape classics like bokkoms (dried salted mullet) and soutsnoek (Bacalhau-style salted snoek). Smoking of fish was also introduced; snoek, mackerel and elf (shad) being particularly suited to this form of curing.
Despite the long time Britain spent in Southern Africa as colonial power and later as suzerain of self-governing territories, its legacy in the culinary domain is surprisingly small. Perhaps Martha Harrison had a point when she wryly remarked: “I’ll bet that what motivated the British to colonise so much of the world was that they were just looking for a decent meal.”While British food used to be known for its blandness and lack of flair, the Poms did introduce South Africa to probably the most iconic fast food of all time: Fish and Chips. Another precious culinary jewel they bequeathed us, in my view, is the Full English Breakfast, and I’ll always be grateful for Steak & Kidney Pie too. What diminishes the British heritage is the fact that it remains “British” or “English” – very little of it actually became embedded in the local fare.
Into the Hinterland
By the 1830s, many Boers had had enough of British rule, packed up their wagons and headed North to seek a Promised Land where they could govern themselves. Trekking into the interior was a dangerous and uncomfortable process. Furthermore, the diet was Spartan, constrained by the limited ingredients available. Provisions taken along had to be durable, like flour, sugar, and dried meat and fruit, and were supplemented by foraging and hunting of fresh greens and meet. It was during this pioneering era that some of Afrikanerdom’s signature foods evolved: biltong, droëwors, vetkoek, potbrood and boerbeskuit (dried rusks). Because meat was abundant, the braai was a regular feature of life on trek. During pauses in the journey, women would bake rustic bread in ovens consisting of hollowed-out antheaps.
Another iconic South African dish developed as a consequence of this migratory way of life: potjiekos. Trekkers would make a stew, and eat most of it. The leftovers stayed in the three-legged cast-iron pot, and at the next halt more ingredients would be added to top it up. After a few days the contents of the pot looked like today’s potjie: a number of distinct layers of meat and vegetables on top of one another.
Compared to an American, European or Oriental diet, milk and dairy products are very prominent in the diets of both the Trekkers and the Black tribes they met. As cows were considered extremely desirable domestic animals in the lives of both groups, milk was abundant. In the absence of refrigeration, soured milk (Amasi) was a dietary mainstay. A visitor to any African village in the 1800s would have been offered a large calabash of cool fermented milk as a greeting. Buttermilk was a favourite among the Boers, including the future president, Paul Kruger. Today, in the dairy section of South Africa's supermarkets, one will find a variety of kinds of milk, sour milk, sour cream, and other modern versions of traditional milk products.
By the 1840s, the majority of Boers had settled on farms between the Orange and Limpopo rivers. As stability set in, they could begin planting or sowing crops, and their diet started to include a greater range of foodstuffs – most notably vegetables like beans, carrots, pumpkin and cabbage. To the braai was added roast joints of meat, oven-baked meat dishes and stews requiring fresh ingredients like tamatiebredie.
Enter the Indians
Sugar cane farming was introduced to the colony of Natal by Mauritian expatriates in the mid-1800s. The local Zulu population regarded working in sugar plantations demeaning, and resisted recruitment. The settlers’ response was to recruit indentured labourers from India. They were supposed to work for five years and then return “home”. The majority chose to settle in Natal at the end of their contracts, though. Many became traders or professional people, and became valuable members of the community.
They have subsequently had an impact on South African society out of all proportion to their numbers, including the culinary area. Curried dishes are nowadays popular with South Africans of all ethnic origins, and the crispy Samoosa almost obligatory wherever snacks are served. The fact that Indian restaurants offered appetising, filling food at affordable prices secured a large market share among Black labourers. This affinity was boosted by the fact that Indians did not discriminate against customers based on race. Apartheid laws that banned Black customers from eating in restaurants led to the invention of one of South Africa’s best-loved dishes: the “Bunny Chow”. Enterprising Indian restaurateurs started serving their curries on a Takeaway basis; using hollowed-out loaves of bread as the containers.
It is widely believedt that the Ranchod family first created the bread-and-curry dish at a restaurant-cum-cafe called “Kapitan's” on the corner of Victoria and Albert streets in Durban. To me, this dish epitomises the essence of Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha philosophy: its sale to Africans proved a powerful, yet non-violent protest against an unjust dispensation. The grandson of the owner established a restaurant, also called Kapitan’s, in the Johannesburg CBD. Kapitan’s would later become famous as the restaurant where a young Black attorney called Nelson Mandela used to lunch regularly.
Indian immigration to South Africa consisted of two distinct groups of people: the indentured labourers (mostly Hindu or Goan Christians) and traders who came here as freemen (mostly Muslims from North India). The latter group, although smaller in numbers, has also produced some truly great South Africans. They have also enriched our food culture with their less hot, yet very tasty food. Naan bread, Biryani, Tandoori Chicken, Rogan Josh and Tamata Shorba are today household names among South African food lovers.
“Sodom and Gomorra”
The discovery of diamonds and gold lured thousands of foreign fortune seekers to South Africa. While Anglo-Saxons were in the majority, just about every European culture was represented among these “Uitlanders”. This led to the introduction of yet more ingredients to our culinary Potjie. Germans and German Jews were prominent, the former skilful in the making of pork delicacies and the latter abhorring pork as “un-Kosher”.
In the boom town of Johannesburg, saloons and “knock shops” proliferated, and Irish desperadoes robbed mail coaches and post offices with little impediment from the “Zuid-Afrikaanse Republiek Politie” or “ZARPs”. Small wonder that Pres Kruger compared the mining town to the Biblical Sodom and Gomorra! Hot on the heels of the miners and camp followers came shopkeepers and restaurateurs, and with them Greek, Italian and Chinese food.
The Eagle and the Cross
The neighbouring colonies of German South West Africa (today’s Namibia) and Portuguese East Africa (today’s Mozambique) have each contributed to our culinary heritage – the latter perhaps more so than the former. The German Eagle pennant only waved over Namibia for 30 years, yet the colonists left a lasting impression. The most visible legacies are the architecture, the cuisine and the dress of Herero women. Before being bested by General Louis Botha’s Union Defence Force in 1915, the Germans introduced the region to salami, sauerkraut, eisbein, brawn and Viennas.
The Portuguese who planted the Cross of St John on the shores of Angola and Mozambique proved remarkably resilient. They were the first European nation to establish colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the last to leave (in 1975, nearly 500 years later). The Portuguese did not enforce a colour bar like the Germans, and fraternisation with local women was not frowned upon. In this relatively integrated society, culinary traditions were also able to interact and cross-pollinate. The age-old Portuguese love of seafood and chicken, combined with hot spices from Goa, fiery chillies from Brazil and the African method of cooking over flames spawned the internationally renowned peri-peri cuisine of Mozambique.
South Africans visiting Mozambique pre-independence almost invariably developed a taste for LM Prawns (named after Lourenço Marques, the colonial era name of Maputo) and peri-peri chicken. The prevalence of these dishes in South Africa got a further boost after independence in 1975, when thousands of Portuguese fled the country and settled in South Africa. Today, the best examples of their cuisine are to be found in the Deep South of Johannesburg, in areas like Turffontein and Rosettenville.
The last of the Europeans
After World War II, millions of Europeans emigrated to the New World to escape the misery and hardship of the war-torn continent. Germany and Italy, the defeated Axis powers, were understandably the hardest hit. South Africa would have gained enormously from a large influx of skilled workers and professionals, but the newly-elected National Party government made European immigration as difficult as they could so that the Afrikaners would remain a majority among the White population. This short-sightedness resulted in Argentina, Australia and New Zealand gaining more than their fair share of the migrants.
The largest group among the relatively small number of immigrants that did make it here were Italians. Their arrival coincided neatly with the return of demobilised South African servicemen who had served in Italy, and become acquainted with Italian pizza and pasta. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for the first pizzerias to open in Johannesburg...
The anti-British insurgency in Cyprus resulted in a few thousand Greek Cypriots making their way to South Africa. Many of them set up shop as café owners, but others went into the restaurant business. The most notable of them, George Halamandaris, established the first American-style steakhouse – the Black Steer – in 1963. His son John would go on to found the first Steers fast food outlet in Jeppe, Johannesburg in 1970. Steers would in time become a heavyweight among the indigenous franchise businesses. Another, even bigger, success story is that of Nando’s Chickenland (nowadays simply Nando’s) – brainchild of Poruguese immigrant Fernando (“Nando”) Duarte and Robbie Brozin, the son of Jewish immigrants.
The African influx
Since the demise of Apartheid, South Africa has become a popular destination for refugees and work seekers from countries to the North. In a country with massive unemployment problems of its own the Makwerekwere (aliens) are not always welcomed warmly, and stereotypes abound: the Nigerian drug dealer, the clever Zimbabwean, the violent Congolese and the Somali shopkeeper selling “hot” goods dirt cheap.
Despite the bad blood that periodically escalates into xenophobic pogroms, the new arrivals have enriched our cookery with previously unknown delicacies and techniques. Some examples are Ethiopian Wat stews served one flat Injera bread, West African stews based on Okra, Kapenta (fresh water sardines), delectable pãozinhos (little bread rolls in the Mozambican style) and Thiébou (Senegal’s answer to Paella).
The Top 10
The list of dishes below represent, in my subjective opinion, the Top 10 truly South African dishes. In selecting them I only considered dishes that have actually evolved here, and not local adaptations of foreign dishes. My picks are:
10. Vetkoek (“fat cake”) is a traditional rustic bread, which is not baked but deep-fried in oil or fat. It is eaten as a meal with a spicy mince filling, or as a snack with jam, cheese or honey. Vetkoek was born of necessity during the Great Trek. It has a close relative, called amagwinya in townships. Amagwinya differ from vetkoek in that they are never filled like the traditional vetkoek; but are served plain and hot with optional side dishes like mango achar, curry, sausage or French fries.
9. Skilpadjies, pieces of lamb's liver (sometimes kidneys as well) wrapped in netvet (caul fat) and braaied until brown and crisp over hot coals. Caul fat is the fatty membrane that surrounds the kidneys. Traditionally only whole meat was used, but nowadays most skilpadjies are a mixture of minced liver, spices, chopped onion and Worcestershire Sauce wrapped up in the netvet and secured with a toothpick..
8. Walkie Talkies are grilled or deep-fried chicken heads and feet, hugely popular among Black township dwellers. The “walkies” or chicken feet (also known as “runaways”) are eaten in all nine provinces of South Africa, whereas the “talkies” have a smaller, but very loyal, following. Walkies are high in protein and low in kilojoules. They consist mainly of skin and tendons, so their crunchy texture and flavour is different from the rest of the chicken.
7. Puthu (maize porridge) and Morogo (stewed wild spinach) is a quintessentially South African vegetarian dish. Morogo, also known as wild or African spinach, refers to a group of dark green leafy vegetables found throughout Southern Africa and harvested for human consumption. It is considered rich in vitamins and minerals and forms an important part of the staple diet in rural communities.
6. Potjiekos, a traditional stew, is a typical Trekboer dish made with meat and vegetables and cooked over coals in three-legged cast-iron pots. The Dutch colonists brought with them heavy iron cooking pots which hung from hooks over the open hearth. These cast-iron pots retained heat well and could be kept simmering over a few embers. They also allowed steam to circulate instead of escape through the lid.
5. Curried sheep’s offal. This dish – one of my all-time favourites – combines European, Middle Eastern and Oriental elements. The cleaned head, tongue, stomach and trotters of a sheep are boiled with vinegar, salt and cloves to remove any lingering farmyard smells, chopped and stewed with new potatoes in a mild curry sauce.
4. Chakalaka, a spicy South African vegetable relish, often containing beans as well, that is traditionally served on its own with pap, bread or samp, or as a side dish with meat dishes or curries. To balance its fiery flavour, it is sometimes served with Amasi (thick sour milk). It is believed to have originated in the townships around Johannesburg.
3. Waterblommetjiebredie, a stew made with the flowers of water hawthorn, mutton, potatoes and onions. The Waterblommetjie (also called Cape pond weed) is found in the dams, ponds and marshes of the Western Cape. Waterblommetjiebredie was originally a seasonal thing (the plants bloom in July/August) but canning has since made it available all year long.
2. Bunny chow, curry stuffed into a hollowed-out loaf of bread. Bunny chows are commonly filled with curries made using traditional recipes from Durban: Madras Lamb Curry, Chicken Korma, Bombay Beef Curry (also known as “Durban Curry”) various vegetarian curries and chips with curry gravy are popular fillings.
1. Bobotie, an oven-baked dish of spicy mince and raisins with a golden egg topping. It is usually served with turmeric rice, sambals and chutney. It is uniquely South African, and our first “fusion” dish; a hybrid of the cottage pie and Malay beef curry.