South African cuisine is a combination of the recipes from the many cultural groups that have co-existed in the country over the past 350 years. The Khoisan, the first known inhabitants of the country, were mainly hunter-gatherers. Later, the Black people people introduced agriculture to the country by growing maize, sweet potato, gem squash and other vegetables for their dishes.
When the Dutch and English arrived, they introduced sausage, later known as “boerewors” (farmer’s sausage), bobotie and practical stews, such as “potjiekos”. Home-made boerewors sausage actually evolved from recipes brought by German immigrants at a later stage. The slaves, imported from the east (India and Malaysia) added curry and other spicy flavourings to our dishes.
The first Europeans to set foot in South Africa were the Portuguese explorers. They added fish dishes and peri-peri to the melting pot. All the larger cities of South Africa have a wide range of restaurants that specialise in Greek, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Portuguese and even Cajun ethnic food.
Meat, fish, chicken, potatoes and onions are cooked over coals, outdoors. Almost every suburban house has a braai area – many have an indoor one as well.
Many traditional black dishes include pap. The Black people eat smooth maize meal porridge, or simple pap, and crumbly “phutu” pap. A variety of savouries are used to accompany pap, made from green vegetables, and flavoured with chilli. A dish called “Umngqusho is apparently President Mandela’s favourite dish. It is made of stamp mealies (broken dried maize kernels) with sugar beans, butter, onions, potatoes, chillies and lemons, made to simmer.
Another traditional dish is Mashonzha. It is the Mopani caterpillar, cooked with chilli and often eaten with peanuts. It is understandably not so popular with tourists.The Black people also brew their own sorghum beer. It is very rich in vitamin B and is called “Umqombothi”.
During the trekking days, the ox-wagon was the only means of transport. Very few provisions were taken along on long journeys. Salt, sugar, tinned milk, coffee and tea made up the basics. Meat had to be hunted along the way.
The Hunters pot (potjiekos) evolved as a stew, made of venison and vegetables (if they could find some), made in a three-legged cast iron pot. As each new animal was shot, it was cut up and added to the pot. The large bones were included to thicken the stew. Each day when the wagons stopped, the pot was placed over a fire to brew up. Old bones were replaced with new and meat was added to replace meat eaten. Venison included game, poultry, such as guinea fowl, wart hog, bush pig, rabbit and hare
Other trekker dishes, which have remained are pickled fish, spiced and marinated venison and lamb, and biltong. To make biltong, venison or beef is cut along the grain into strips and salt, pepper and coriander is added. The meat is salted overnight and hung in a cool, airy place for the curing process to take place. When it is sufficiently dry, it is either cut into slices or grated.
Another distinctly South African stew is the delicious “waterblommetjiebredie”. It is meat stewed together with a flower (the Cape Pondweed) found in the dams and marshes of the Western Cape only. The buds are usually ready to be picked in the months of July and August.
Bobotie is another traditional dish. It is minced meat cooked with brown sugar, apricots and raisins, milk-soaked mashed bread and curry flavouring. Tripe too, is a favourite farmer dish. It is regarded as a real delicacy, cooked in red wine.
Mealies (maize) or sweetcorn, is a very popular food in South Africa. Mealies are either boiled or cooked over coals in the cob, or made into mealie bread. Maize meal is the staple diet of many people, especially for African people. Geelrys, traditionally served with bobotie, has also been very popular. It is rice spiced with turmeric, then mixed with raisins and boiled eggs
As with meat, the braai is a favourite way of cooking fish. The South African waters are rich in kingklip, snoek, red roman, hake, cod, pilchards, sole, to name but a few. Other delicacies from the sea include abalone, oysters, mussels, calamari, shrimps and crayfish (a clawless lobster).
Where puddings are concerned, Melktert is a quintessentially South African dessert, not to be missed. It is puff pastry filled with a mix of milk, flour and eggs and flavoured with cinnamon sugar.