13. Jan, 2018

Some quintessential South African ethnic cuisine

“Food is to a large extent what holds society together, and eating is closely linked to deep spiritual experiences.” – Peter Farb.


The key to understanding South African food is to be found in the complex, multi-cultural history of Southern Africa since the arrival of Black people from north of the Limpopo and Whites from Europe. Our collective past contains a dazzling array of African, European and Asian traditions, and many popular dishes are products of the interaction between successive waves of new arrivals.

When Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape in 1488, there were three resident communities in what is today the Western Cape: the Strandlopers (“beachcombers”), Khoi (referred to as Hottentots or – pejoratively – Hotnots by the settlers) and San (Bushmen to the Dutch). The former was ethnically similar to the Khoi, but were hunter-gatherers while the latter were pastoralists. Judging by the midden heaps they left behind, Strandlopers dined on mussels, limpets, perlemoen, crayfish and seals, and for “vegetables” they foraged for edible roots and tubers, wild fruit and certain kinds of seaweed. They also built ingenious dry-stone fish traps, known as vywers, in the inter-tidal zone. During high tide these “kraals” were submerged, and on the ebb fish like Mullet, Elf and Galjoen were often trapped in them.  

The Khoi kept cattle and sheep, and so meat and dairy products were the basis of their diet. A favourite meal consisted of kaiings – crispy-fried sheep tail fat – mixed with wild cabbage. The San were hunter-gatherers like the Standlopers, but specialised in living off the hinterland, as opposed to the coastline. They needed neither seafood nor domesticated animals as long as game was abundant, which it was in those days; even on the Cape Peninsula itself. Their diet consisted of buck, rodents and reptiles, as well as birds and their eggs. The women also collected veldkos (edible wild plants and fruits).

With the arrival of White settlers, several new influences were introduced: European food culture, the Asian cuisines of Oriental slaves and – very importantly – ready access to spices. Since many VOC officials had served in “Batavia” (Indonesia), they brought their nannies and cooks with them. This quickly led to “fusion” food incorporating indigenous as well as exotic elements, like tamatiebredie (a highly seasoned, slow-cooked mutton and tomato stew stew) and waterblommetjiebredie (made with mutton and the flowers of the Cape pond weed).

Of particular interest was the evolution of bobotie – a marriage of Dutch-style cottage pie with local fruit and almonds, chutney and Malay-style aromatic spices. Another poster child of the Boerekos genre with East Indian DNA is the sosatie (a spicy meat kebab). It is a direct descendant of the kebabs eaten in the Indonesian archipelago, and can insist of beef, mutton and/or pork – sometimes chicken – marinated in a spicy sweet-and-sour sauce. The original sauce was made from fried onions, chillies, garlic, sugar, curry leaves and tamarind paste.

As the small victualling station in Table Bay expanded into a full-blown colony, some of its more restless residents started venturing north and east. The Namaqualand and Karoo to the north were harsh, inhospitable badlands, so most white trekboere (homesteaders) sought their fortune in the verdant, water-rich East of the Colony. It was only a matter of time before they collided with the amaXhosa, who had made their home in the latter-day Eastern Cape.

The Xhosa tribes, like their Zulu kinfolk, practiced a combination of pastoralism and tillage (both cereals and vegetables). With both sides land-hungry people with martial cultures, war over land ownership was inevitable. It took a century and nine “wars” before the Xhosa were finally subdued. Missionaries and traders played important roles in the process of subjugation by introducing the tribesmen to Western religion and culture, as well as the monetary economy. By the end of the 19th Century many Xhosa people were literate Christians who adopted Western modes of dress and cooking. Many of today’s Kasi (township) dishes are descended from to food eaten by Westernised Xhosa and Mfengo families.

As mentioned earlier, numerous other cultures and cuisines have subsequently influenced what we eat and drink today, but the basis of pan-South African cuisine had been laid – with one notable exception: the arrival of Indian indentured labourers and traders in the second half of the 19th Century. In the rest of this chapter I would like to share some insights into some of our country’s best-known ethnic cuisines, along with recipes for some of their signature dishes. It is by no means a comprehensive omnibus; rather an amuse-bouche of interesting titbits.

Black African cuisine

Black Africans make up the vast majority of South Africa’s population, but centuries of segregation and social Darwinism have prevented their cultures from receiving the same attention and recognition as those of Westerners. Blacks were also the victims of cultural imperialism; the notion that European cultures were inherently superior to theirs. This is especially true in the culinary environment – the urban bourgeoisie’s diet has been predominantly European, with even Indian food being fat better known and liked than traditional African fare.

There are four main groups of Black African cultures in South Africa. The largest is the Nguni (comprising of the Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi and Ndebele), followed by the Sotho (consisting of the South Sotho, Pedi and Tswana), the Tsonga-Shangaan and the Venda. The Nguni, Tsonga-Shangaan and Venda settled in the warm sub-tropical East of the country, and the Sotho on the High veld of the central and western interior. By the end of the 18th Century these nations had settled down more or less in their current locations. Although there are numerous cultural and linguistic differences between them, they have enough in common to describe their cuisines and diets collectively.

The cuisines of the Black peoples of South Africa have their roots in pre-colonial lifestyles. When the Bantu speakers of Central Africa moved across the Limpopo around a thousand years ago, they brought with them cattle and grain crops. During this epoch, most communities combined livestock farming and agriculture with hunting and foraging. Archaeological finds in Limpopo province indicate that agriculture was already being practiced in the Levuvhu river valley in the 11th Century. The polities of Mapungubwe and Thulamela used a wide variety of bulbs, leaves, berries, fruits, vegetables and cereals in their everyday cooking. Game was plentiful, and venison was a staple. Because cattle were seen as storers of wealth, beef was only eaten on special occasions. Dairy products were however consumed daily. Long before they encountered Whites, therefore, African communities subsisted on a cuisine comprised of cooked porridge, stewed or braaied meat, boiled vegetables, sour milk and fermented grain beverages.

Because of the economic and status value attached to cattle, beef enjoyed superior status to other meats. Apart from venison, chicken and goat meat were often eaten in the day-to-day context. Only on special occasions like weddings, funerals and coronations were cattle and/or sheep slaughtered and eaten. Because the animal was so valuable, no part of it was wasted. The head, organ meat, intestines and stomach were all eaten, and dishes based on these cuts remain popular in black communities to this day. Sheep heads (aka smileys) and afval (tripe) have become cult foods, eaten with equal gusto by the township poor and affluent people in trendy restaurants.

The only written accounts of African life before 1652 were ship’s logs, the diaries of sailors and – mainly – the memoirs of shipwreck survivors. The most important crops mentioned in these were millet, sorghum, beans, melons, calabashes (wild pumpkins) and peanuts. Morogo is also frequently mentioned, but this was foraged – never cultivated. Amadumbe was already a popular starch food among the Ngunis encountered on the East Coast by the 17th Century. It was clear that foraging was an important source of nourishment as well. Apart from wild fruit and vegetables, other delicacies gathered in the wild included Mopani worms, locusts, termites, edible beetles and grubs, birds’ eggs and – most prized – honey.

The introduction of maize to Southern Africa in the 19 Century had a massive impact on African communities - highly positive at first. It not only raised the yields of farmlands, but provided villagers with filling, energising food. It soon became a staple; as dry phutu (porridge) or with milk at lunchtime, and as the starch with meat and vegetables at dinnertime. Mealies were not just ground for meal; they were also roasted over a fire, boiled whole or fermented to make beer. Sadly, the value of maize as a crop were to backfire on rural Blacks. In years to come White commercial farmers would do all they could to ensure a ready supply of cheap Black farm labour by forcing African communities into overcrowded "tribal trust lands" and taxing them so that men had only to options to earn money: work on farms or the mines.

Apartheid and the "segregation" that preceded it largely destroyed the African way of life. Crammed into "locations" and "homelands", there was little room to practice traditional agriculture or animal husbandry. The ability to supplement one's diet by hunting and foraging quickly disappeared, and earning a wage became the key to survival. To do so, some families migrated to cities and towns while others stayed in rural areas, but men went to work in factories and mines as single migrant labourers. The hard times under Apartheid saw the emergence of a resilient class of urban workers who adapted to their new environment as best they could, and developed a sub-culture of their own. This was reflected in the hybrid language they spoke, as well as in the food they ate. Their cooking style became known as Kasi food: from lokasie (Afrikaans for “location” or “Black township”).

Kasi cuisine is fascinating: on the one hand it is authentically African, but on the other it shows how much our different ethnic cuisines have in common. The best examples are shisanyama and braaivleis, followed by the smiley (intloko yemvu) and skaapkop. Amagwinya and vetkoek are peas in a pod, so are the kota and bunny chow. One man's u/uso is another man's tripe and most of us adore fried sheep liver. Two Kasi favourites that I have yet to develop a taste for are amanqina enkukhu or "walkie talkies" (chicken feet) and umqombothi - maize and sorghum beer. Township food is not merely a down-market variation on boerekos. It reflects the struggle of communities to.put appetising food on the table despite poverty and oppression, while still adhering to one's cultural roots and history. It remains an important part of the cultural mix and vibe that makes South Africa special.

Uluso/Mogudu. If I had to select one Kasi dish that encapsulates the best of Black African cuisine, it would be this beef tripe dish.


Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 7 hours

Serves 6


1kg Tripe, cleaned

350g Tinned chakalaka (spicy tomato relish)

150g Bacon bits

3 Garlic cloves, chopped

1 Medium onion, finely chopped

1 Large carrot, peeled and finely chopped

1 Celery stalk, finely chopped

450ml Lager beer

2 Cups water

½ Tbsp. sunflower oil

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper for seasoning


  • Pre-cook the tripe for 2 hours in salted water.
  • Drain and rinse the tripe, then boil for another 3 hours in fresh salted water with a dash of spirit vinegar.
  • Drain the tripe and allow it to cool.
  • Cut it into bite-sized strips.
  • Sauté the bacon and garlic in the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat.
  • Add the onion, carrot and celery, and continue sautéing until the vegetables are nice and soft.
  • Check the seasoning, then add the pre-cooked tripe.
  • Mix it all well, and allow to simmer so that the tripe begins to absorb the flavour of the bacon and vegetables.
  • Add the beer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.
  • Add the chakalaka and water, cover and simmer until the tripe is tender but still ever so slightly chewy and the sauce well reduced, about 90 minutes.
  • Serve on samp and beans.


The term boerekos is generally understood to refer to the cuisine of white Afrikaners, but in my view there is so much cultural overlap between them and Afrikaans-speaking "Coloured" people that both groups can identify with it. Boerekos evolved in two environments: the genteel farming communities of the Boland (South-Western Cape) region, and the harsh, comfortless existence of the Trekboere and Voortrekkers. The former were simply itinerant livestock farmers who moved north individually in search of better pasture, while the latter were organised groups of emigrants who left the Cape Colony to escape British rule. Culturally, however, they can be regarded as the same kind of people.

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 meat. It was during this pioneering era that some of Afrikanerdom's signature foods evolved: biltong, droëwors, vetkoek (buns fried in lard), potbrood (bread baked in a pot over coals) 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 ant heaps.

Of all the foods named above, the one that is probably the most widely eaten today is biltong - not just by South Africans of all races, but by a diaspora all over the world. Who first preserved excess meat from the hunt by smearing it with spices and hanging it out to dry? In this semi-arid country, the San would almost certainly have dried a portion of meat from each kill as insurance against lean times. Black Africans too, have traditionally preserved extra meat by drying it in strips, a handy shape for dropping into a pot of stew.

The Dutch brought the recipe for tassel meat from the Old World, rubbing strips of meat with salt, pepper and coriander, covering them with vinegar to preserve them. They later added nitrate to the mix, sprinkled vinegar over and hung the meat up to dry. The Voortrekkers made of this customary food a delicacy, using venison, beef, ostrich - whatever they could find. In modern-day South Africa, it is unthinkable to watch rugby -  another Boere obsession -  without an ample supply of sliced biltong.

Another iconic South African dish developed because of migratory life: potjiekos. Its evolution started soon after the first Dutch settlers arrived at the Cape. In those days, food was cooked in an open hearth in the kitchen in a black cast-iron pot with legs so that the coals could be scraped under the pot. Later, during the era of Trekgees, meat, vegetables and spices piled into a three-legged iron pot and cooked for quite a long time over a fire was the perfect way for trek farmers to keep body and soul together.

When camp was made, meat was stewed with vegetables; depending on circumstances this could be game, mutton, goat or even old oxen. After supper the pot, its remaining contents protected by a heavy layer of fat, was hooked under the wagon when camp was struck, then unhooked at the next stop and put on the fire. More ingredients would be added to top it up. After a few days the contents of the pot looked like today's potjie: several distinct layers of meat and vegetables on top of one another. After largely disappearing after the Anglo-Boer war potjiekos experienced a revival in the 1970s, when it became a fashionable (and more exotic) alternative to the traditional braai.

Modern-day Boerekos still harks back to the pioneering days. Fundamentally it is based on Dutch cuisine, with contributions from French and German immigrant communities, enriched by a large dollop of Cape Malay, and tempered by decades of trekking. Meat is king, while fish and other seafoods do not feature as prominently as in other cuisines with European roots. This is no doubt due to the fact that most Afrikaner families have lived far from the sea for a long time. Consequently, the aristocrats of Afrikaner lunch and dinner tables include braaivleis (steak, chops, boerewors and/or sosaties), skaapboud (slow-roasted leg of lamb), bobotie, beesstert (stewed oxtail) and gammon ham.

Vegetables are prepared along the original Dutch lines; quite heavily sweetened or seasoned and incorporating generous helpings of butter and spices. Potatoes are ubiquitous, and usually roasted or mashed. Afrikaner women take justifiable pride in their puddings: these are generally superb (but generally extremely sweet!) To me, the finest examples are melktert (milk tart), koeksusters (braided pastry strips in syrup), souskluitjies (saucy dumplings) and the now internationally renowned malva pudding.

I should add that all Afrikaners are by no means traditionalists, and particularly the urban bourgeoisie has developed eclectic, cosmopolitan tastes in food. Perhaps because Apartheid and its folly were so closely associated with Afrikaner culture, many younger people have come to look down on traditional food, music and pastimes. The average urbanite has relegated things like sokkiejol (Afrikaner-style two-step dancing), boeremusiek (traditional concertina-based dance music) and boeresport (traditional games) to the dark cupboard under the stairs reserved for the terminally uncool.  And sadly, the same goes for much of the food that used to be the staple diet of many an Afrikaans family.  The two notable exceptions are of course the braai and potjiekos!

Bobotie. This is one of South Africa’s truly authentic dishes, and it is relatively easy to make. Although its roots are partly Malay, it is nowadays regarded as one of the icons of Boerekos.


Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 2 hours

Serves 8


For the curry:

900g Minced lamb or beef

100g Dried apricots, chopped

50g Slivered almonds, roasted in a dry frying pan

6 Lemon, orange, or bay leaves

2 Onions, chopped

2 Slices bread, crumbled

1 Granny Smith apple; peeled, cored and chopped

1 Extra-large egg

Finely grated zest and juice of ½ lemon

60ml Full cream milk

60ml Sultana raisins

1  Tbsp. curry powder

1 Tsp. ground turmeric

1 Tbsp. sunflower oil

1 Tbsp. butter

½ Tsp. crushed garlic

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

For the topping:

1  Extra-large egg

1 Cup milk

½ Tsp. salt

  • Pre-heat your oven to 160°C.
  • Butter a large oven-proof dish; at least 30 x 20cm and 15cm deep.
  • Heat butter and oil in a saucepan over medium heat, and fry the onion and garlic until translucent.
  • Stir in the curry powder and turmeric, and cook briefly until fragrant. Remove the pot from the heat.
  • Mix in the minced meat.
  • Mix together the crumbs, milk, lemon rind and juice, egg, salt, pepper, apricots, apple, sultanas and almonds and mix into the meat mixture.
  • Transfer to the oven dish and level the top.
  • Roll up the leaves and bury them in the mince at regular intervals.
  • Seal with foil and bake for 75 minutes.
  • Meanwhile mix together the milk, eggs and salt (you may require extra topping if you've used a very large casserole).
  • Increase the oven temperature to 200°C and remove the dish from the oven.
  • Pour the topping evenly over the curry and bake, uncovered, for a further 15 minutes until cooked and lightly browned.
  • Serve with yellow rice and fruit chutney.

Cape Malay

No discussion about the cultural history of Cape Town would be complete without reference to the so-called "Cape Malays". This small, close-knit community have influenced life in the Mother City in many ways, making indelible impressions on its politics, economy, language, architecture and - especially - its cooking. Their presence in the Cape is due to the scourge of slavery, but with a twist. Most of the slaves brought to the Cape were abducted by treacherous countrymen in Africa, Asia and Madagascar, and sold to European traders, who sold them on to settlers as cheap labour. These wretches were generally unskilled and mainly performed manual tasks. The "Malays" (most of whom were in fact what would be called "lndonesians" nowadays) were not tribesmen randomly "caught" but rather nobles, intellectuals and tradesmen. Many were in fact freedom fighters!

The Dutch East India Company, or VOC, had colonized large parts of South East Asia - including the Indonesian archipelago - by the late 17th Century. Harsh European rule and especially the persecution of Muslims caused resistance, which was eventually crushed by the Dutch. Many leaders of this early anti-colonial struggle were arrested and exiled to the Cape, which was by then also occupied by the VOC. Another significant part of the Malay diaspora consisted of servants of the Dutch officials sold off in Cape Town as their masters were returning to the Netherlands from the East. The Muslim arrivals represented a welcome windfall to the colonists, as many of them were skilled artisans, such as silversmiths, tailors, cobblers, masons and cooks.

The Malays were held together and organised by respected the exiles, called orang cayen ("men of repute") like Sheikh Yusuf, and the Tuans (masters) Guru, Syed and Nurman. Thanks to their able leadership, their community retained social and religious cohesion, and prospered as much as their straitened circumstances allowed. In time they adopted the fledgling Afrikaans language as their lingua franca. One of the first examples of written Afrikaans was the translation of the Holy Koran from Arabic to Afrikaans. Ironically, it was the Malay community which kept the language pure and vibrant during the British colonial era, when many educated Afrikaners became anglicised. They contributed significantly to its vocabulary, e.g. baie (plenty), baadjie 0acket), sosatie (kebab) and piesang (banana).

A part of South African life in which the influence of Cape Malays is felt daily is cuisine. Malay food combines numerous flavours in hearty, aromatic dishes that are enjoyed around many dinner tables, across ethnic and cultural lines. Fragrant stews such as tamatiebredie, breyani and bobotie are firm favourites, as are roasts, spicy curries, and sosaties (lamb or mutton kebabs). It must be noted that Cape Malay curries are generally far milder than the Indian curries eaten further north. The aromatic nature of Cape Malay cuisine is due to a blend of spices - cumin, coriander, star anise, tamarind, cinnamon, cardamom and turmeric, to name a few - that give the food its distinctive aromatic quality. Dried fruit such as raisins and apricots are also essential additions, creating the sweet and sour flavours that complement the spices.

Cape Malay cuisine also includes plenty of fish dishes which are usually salted, curried or pickled, while homemade chutneys and achaar (pickled vegetables) serve as tasty condiments. The best place to experience Cape Malay cuisine is in the "Bo-Kaap" as the Malay Quarter is known locally. The area is characterised by steep cobble-stone streets and rainbow-colored houses, and has retained its unique character and ambience ever since it was settled by former Cape Malay slaves in the early 19th Century.

Breads are also important in Cape Malay cuisine. Rotis (pronounced "rooties") are ubiquitous. This flatbread is used to wrap up saucy dishes, as well as to mop up sauce from plates. Basmati rice and sambals, a relish likened to salsa, are served with bland dishes to spice them up and consist of grated vegetables or fruit seasoned with sugar, salt, chilies and vinegar.

Muslim celebrations like birthday parties, weddings and graduations are characterised by a dazzling array of snacks. These delicious morsels include chicken and mince samoosas, miniature rotis, mince pies, dhaltjies and half-moons. Dhaltjies are tasty ball­ shaped snacks made with chickpea flour, spinach, onion and turmeric and deep-fried in hot oil.  They are eaten either as is or dipped in chutney or sweet chili sauce. As the name suggests, half-moons are semi­ circle crispy eats made from cake flour, butter and breadcrumbs and are filled with meat, chicken or veggies.

When it comes to dessert, Cape Malay puddings are in a league of their own. Some of the numerous favourites   include   fragrant   fruit-infused   puddings    and    tarts, as    well    as    cakes, biscuits and koeksusters (spiced syrupy donuts covered in desiccated coconut), which are perfect for tea time. Boeber is a traditional sweet milk drink made with vermicelli, sago and sugar and is flavoured with cardamom, cinnamon and rose water. This delicious drink is traditionally served during Ramadan. Another delicious Cape Malay drink is falooda:a sweet rose-flavoured milkshake topped with ice cream and softened basil seeds.

Malay Fish Curry. The following recipe highlights all the things I like about the cookery of the "Bo-Kaap"; try it once and you will make it again and again. It keeps well in the fridge for up to 5 days.


Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 45 minutes

Serves 6


1  Kg snoek (unsalted), yellowtail or kingklip fillets, skinned and sliced into 5cm² portions

2  Garlic cloves, crushed

3  Allspice berries

1 Large onion, finely chopped

1 Bay leaf or lemon leaf Juice of ½ lemon

1 Cup water

½ Cup cake flour for dredging the fish, plus 2 tsp. extra to thicken the sauce

½ Tbsp. sultanas

½ Tbsp. sugar

½ Tbsp. smoot apricot jam

½ Tbsp. medium curry powder 2 Tsp. spirit vinegar

1 Tsp. turmeric

Sunflower oil for frying

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper for seasoning


  • Heat 2 tbsp. oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat.
  • Sprinkle the fish with the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.
  • Fry the fish in the oil for 2 minutes on each side.
  • Remove it from the pan and drain on paper towel s.
  • Heat a little oil in a deep saucepan over medium heat and sauté the onion and garlic for 5 minutes.
  • Add the sultanas, curry powder and turmeric, and mix well.
  • Sprinkle with the flour and stir it in.
  • Add the water and bring to the boil, stirring continually.
  • Reduce the heat to low and add the fish, allspice and bay or lemon leaf.
  • Simmer, covered for 15 minutes.
  • Mix the vinegar, sugar and apricot jam and add to the saucepan.
  • Simmer, stirring occasionally for another 15 minutes.
  • Check the seasoning and serve immediately with rice and sambals.

Indian cuisine

An Indian friend of mine once quipped that "Durban is the most African city in India". Thanks to two waves of immigration from India in the late 19th Century- first the indentured laborers in the 1860s, followed by a merchant class who catered to this growing community - Durban is now home to one of the largest populations of ethnic Indians outside the Subcontinent. But the layered symbiosis of geography, politics, economics and the passage of time means that many South African Indians (beyond appearance) have little in common with their subcontinental cousins.

Indian cuisine in South Africa has evolved into something decidedly different from the regional cuisines of the Old Country. When Indians began arriving in Durban from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, and Karnataka in small parties, traditions and flavours that never had occasion to interact back home began coalescing on faraway shores. They found commonalities in some cultural practices and cuisines, and discarded others.

That pan-Indian influence, combined with the scarcity of familiar spices and ingredients, drove cooks to innovate with readily available produce and regional traditions, and culminated in the development of a new genre of Indian cookery. Out went the dairy, coconut milk, and hard-to-source spices like saffron; in came amaDumbe), calabashes, mealie meal, samp (dried corn kernels), and pumpkin. Lentils found their way into the folds of biryani, which over time became known locally as breyani.  Samosas have mutated into samoosas in Durban, and the "Durban Curry" served at the Britannia or Oyster Box are unlike anything found in India!

Before Apartheid, Indians and Blacks lived cheek by jowl. Many Indians could speak Zulu, and many Blacks understood dialects like Gujarati. This interaction resulted in their food becoming more alike. Curries incorporated African ingredients, textures and flavours, while African food became spicier. Sadly, the divide­ and-conquer policies of the Apartheid era succeeded in breaking down much of the harmony between races. It also destroyed people's interest in learning about other cultures. But it also led to unexpected culinary creativity born strictly out of necessity.

No longer able to serve Black workers who made up a large part of their customer base, restaurateurs from the Gujarati Bania (merchant caste) began innovating. They cleaved loaves of white bread into improvised bowls, filled them to the brim with whatever curries they had on hand, and served this portable (if messy) concoction surreptitiously out of takeaway hatches, with nary a parcel or piece of cutlery to betray their lucrative side business. Hence the name: Chow (food) of the Banias became "Bunny Chow" in the vernacular. A national obsession was born.

Patel's, a family business dating to the 1930s, claims to have invented the bunny chow; other reputable sources credit the erstwhile Kapitan's cafe. No matter who invented the sloppy classic, may he rest in peace, these days there are an abundance of takes to choose from. Patel's is still regarded as the purveyor of the best vegetarian offerings today. Gounden's in gritty Umbilo Road is famous for their keema mince and mutton curry and chops chutney, but even more popular are their spicy mutton bunnies, loaded with chunks of melt-in-the-mouth meat. The Britannia Hotel in Umgeni Road boasts great chicken curry bunnies, while Canecutters (named after a pejorative term for KZN Indians) in Glenwood makes possibly the best Durban curry bunnies.

Durban's Indian food is mostly hotter and spicier than its subcontinental counterpart. It is to traditional Indian food what breakdancing is to ballet. Where "Indian" Indian food is a carefully orchestrated symphony of individually-proportioned spices added to a pot at just the right time - a tablespoon of garam masala here, a touch of cumin there, a pinch of turmeric when the simmering medley looks just so - Durban curry powders are typically premixed affairs primed for easy home cooking, composed of whatever the spice merchants have dictated. Cumin, coriander, cardamom, fennel, turmeric; they're all mixed together in advance for your convenience, with plenty of chilli powder thrown in to give each blend its scarlet tint. Add a couple of heaping teaspoons to a pan and you've got yourself a Durban Curry!

During the Apartheid era, two generations of South African Indians largely lost their ties with India. Their cooking kept evolving while South Africa was largely isolated from the rest of the world, so of necessity they created their own Indian cuisine. Since 1994, Indo-South African relations have normalised, but not re-set. While many touristy restaurants now serve more or less authentic Indian regional cuisines, locals still largely stick to the hybrid version of traditional dishes that evolved here. In this respect they are like Americans of Italian descent, whose food has Italian roots but bears American fruit.

Durban Curry Bunny Chow. Selecting a signature dish for South African Indian cuisine was a bit of a no­ brainer...


Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 ½ hours

Serves 4


For the Durban curry:

1kg Leg of lamb, deboned and cubed

3 Large potatoes, peeled and diced

3 Large onions, chopped

1 Medium tomato, skinned and diced 2 Tbsp. dried mango, finely chopped

A 5 cm-long piece of fresh ginger, finely chopped

½ Tbsp. crushed garlic

2 Cloves

2 Cinnamon sticks, each about 10 cm long 6 Curry leaves

5ml Whole fennel seeds

1  Tbsp. Hot curry powder                                                         '\

1 Tsp. salt

1  Tsp. Tamarind extract

250ml Water

75ml Sunflower oil

For the "bunny":

A fresh loaf of white bread, whole

½ Tbsp. chopped coriander leaves for garnishing


  • Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat,
  • Add the onion, cloves and cinnamon sticks.
  • Add the curry powder, stir and let the mixture cook for about 2 minutes.
  • Add the meat to the pot and stir until the meat is coated in the spice mixture.
  • Add the salt, garlic, ginger, mango, tamarind, curry leaves and fennel seeds. Stir thoroughly.
  • Cook on high heat for 5 minutes, stirring continually.
  • Add the potato, reduce the heat to medium and put the lid on the pot.
  • Cook, covered, for an hour.
  • While the curry simmers, cut the loaf of bread into quarters.
  • Scoop or cut out the centres of each quarter loaf, essentially creating a "bowl" of bread for the curry. Don't discard the loose pieces of bread; they are used to sop up some of the curry in the hollowed-out bread quarters.
  • Arrange the bread on four plates and set aside.
  • As some of the excess water and juices in the curry evaporate, add the additional cup of water, followed by the tomato.
  • Check whether the potato is cooked. Once it is, removed the lid and cook on high heat for 5 minutes to thicken the sauce. Stir continuously during this time.
  • Remove from the heat, and cover until it is time to serve the curry.
  • Fill the hole of each quarter loaf with the curry and sauce.
  • Garnish with the coriander leaves and serve with sambals and/or raita (yoghurt and grated cucumber).

Luso-African cuisine

Luso-African cuisine is big in South Africa. Firstly, many Mozambicans live and work here, and many South Africans vacation or work there. Secondly, during the colonial era "LM" was the most exotic holiday destination White South Africans would ever visit; they could bask in its sub-tropical sun, eat piri-piri prawns and chicken and quaff Vinho Verde. Those pleasant memories endure to this day. Last, but not least, the end of colonial rule saw hundreds of thousands of Portuguese refugees flee Mozambique, many of whom settled in South Africa.

Mozambique is justifiably famous for its cuisine, which combines African ingredients and flavours with spices from the East, hot chillies (originally from the Americas) and Portuguese traditions. It was first infused with Arab elements around 700 CE, when traders and slavers from Yemen established bases on the island of Moçambique and at Sofala (modern-day Beira). The Arabs introduced the local population to salt as a means of preserving food. They also introduced various spices and Arab pastries such as doughnuts. They also introduced maize, rice and potatoes, all of which became staple foods. These ingredients were soon intertwined with traditional African ingredients and recipes to create a unique new cuisine.

The Arabs held sway over Mozambique until the early 16th Century, when the Portuguese gained control of their two main settlements. They went on to establish hegemony over Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), Goa in India, Malacca in Indonesia and even Macao in China. The Portuguese in Mozambique gradually extended their control; erecting towns complete with forts and churches in places like lnhambane and Lourenço Marques (now Maputo.) As the Mozambican ports were revictualling and repair stations for Portuguese East Indiamen en route to and from Eastern spice emporiums, spices quickly became embedded in Mozambican cooking. Interestingly, the hot chillies which produce the heat to Indian and Mozambican dishes are not indigenous to either country; the Portuguese brought them to India from Brazil.

During their almost five centuries of rule, the Portuguese greatly impacted the food of Mozambique. Crops such as cassava, sugar cane and cashew nuts (Mozambique was once the largest producer of these nuts) were introduced by the Portuguese. The use of seasonings such as onions, bay leaves, garlic, fresh coriander, paprika, chilli peppers and wine were   introduced   by   the   Portuguese. Prego steak rolls, rissois (pastries filled with shrimp or cheese), the espetada (an outsized kebab}, pudim (custard pudding), and the ever-popular frango inteiro com piri-piri {whole chicken in piri-piri sauce) are all Portuguese dishes still commonly eaten in present-day Mozambique.

Unlike their fellow colonisers the British and the Germans, the Portuguese didn't practice explicit racial segregation. Although the majority of the povo (peasants) were dispossessed and oppressed, individuals could qualify for assimilation into the Portuguese mainstream through baptism in the Catholic Church and becoming literate. This, along with the growth of a sizeable mestiço (mixed-race) population, meant that Lusitanian culture and cuisine permeated Mozambican society more indelibly than those of other European powers. To this day, Mozambicans who can afford it prefer to eat the dishes that evolved from this culinary melting pot. Fundamental to this Luso-African amalgam is piri-piri, which means “spicy-spicy" and it is a standard accompaniment to just about all meals. It is traditionally made by pounding red chillies, garlic, salt and olive oil and lemon juice together.

The extent of the Portuguese influence becomes clear when one observes which dishes are popular, and what they contain. Fish, seafood and chicken – Portugal’s staples - are prominent. Portugal used to be a major seafaring nation, with a still-extensive fishing industry, and this is reflected in the amount of fish and seafood eaten. Mozambique is also blessed with a long coastline and rich fishing grounds, so it's no wonder that many of its most famous dishes also revolve around fresh seafood. The condiments used in these dishes speak volumes about the country's past as part of Portugal's colonial empire: olive oil, garlic and vinegar from Iberia, hot chillies from Brazil, coconut milk from East Africa and spices from the East. And to mop it all up, pãozinhos - delectable small Portuguese bread rolls.

Many consider peri-peri prawns and chicken as the two signature dishes of Mozambican cuisine, but there is much more to it than these two icons. Equally delectable are the curries that hail from Zambezia province, incorporating coconut and coconut milk. Zambezian chicken, grilled with palm oil and spiced mildly, is a particular delicacy. For casual eating, there's nothing than a Prego roll with the steak covered in a fiery red sauce - made with chillies, garlic and vinegar - encased in a fresh pao bun. Seafood other than prawns also forms a large part of the local diet, as it is abundant and cheap. Most popular among these are Lu/as (squid), po/po (octopus) and ameijoas (clams). An authentic local dish (with no discernible Portuguese influence) is Matata, a seafood stew made with clams in a peanut sauce.

Frango Grelhado. If Jakki and I were forced to choose only one poultry dish for the rest of our lives, it would probably be peri-peri "flattie".


Preparation time: 18 hours

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Serves 2


2 Baby chickens

2 Tbsp. fresh garlic, peeled and finely chopped

2 Tbsp. fresh Bird's Eye or Serrano chillies, chopped

2 Tbsp. freshly-squeezed lemon juice

2 Cups olive oil

3 Tsp. salt

1 Tsp. paprika


  • First prepare the oil. Best do this the day before; this allows the flavour to develop.
  • To make the peri-peri oil, heat the oil gently, but do not boil.
  • Add all the other ingredients except the prawns. Heat through, but don't boil.
  • Remove from the heat, cool, and save in a clean bottle until needed. Note: For a milder dish, add the cup of coconut milk and/or halve the number of chillies.
  • Split two baby chickens in half by cutting through the middle of the breast with a longish, very sharp knife. Flatten them by pushing down firmly on both halves of the breast.
  • Put the chickens in a marinade dish, and pour the peri-peri oil over them. Allow to rest for at least 12 hours. If the chickens are not completely submerged, scoop some of the marinade over them from time to time.
  • On D-Day, start a charcoal fire about 40 minutes before the chicken is removed from the marinade.
  • When the coals are ready, spread them evenly across the bottom of the braai. Allow to settle down.
  • Remove the chickens, and strain the marinade to remove all solids.
  • Set the braai grid about 20-30 cm above the coals.
  • Place the chickens on the grid skin side down, and baste with the marinade.
  • Turn and baste the skin side.
  • Keep turning and basting regularly, and remember to leave it on the bony side twice as long as on the skin to avoid burning the skin.
  • When cooked (after about 40 minutes) serve the chickens hot with roast potatoes and coleslaw.


“This year it is so dry in the Boland, they are selling waterblommetjies as dried flower arrangements.” – Roelof van der Westhuizen.