There is a whole industry for people whose only purpose in traveling it is to eat their way through a nation. Food is good enough reason for many to book just a weekend in Paris or Rome and if you prefer it cheap and cheerful you can always eat a week in South East Asia or Mexico. I totally get it, because really what great view doesn’t get greater when enjoyed over a bowl of something amazing? And what mediocre view or rainstorm isn’t made better by it? And after all aren’t food and the art of eating an intricate and important part of culture and lets us experience how people live? Personally I don’t eat to live, but travel to eat.

For some reason South Africa doesn’t seem to feature on most people’s food radar though. They are apparently a nation that lives of wine. Which is not untrue, but the truth South Africans also like to eat as much as they like to drink and the food is just as spectacular. However the food is not easily put in a flavour drawer, there is not one distinct South African cuisine, maybe the reason a lot of travellers don’t really know much about it. With influences from Europe, Asia, and of course Africa it is as eclectic and diverse as the population, offering something for everybody’s palate. Not that one really needs more reasons to come here than beaches, wine, and The Big Five, but let me indulge you anyhow and give you another good excuse, one of my favourite things to do here: eating all the food.

JanBraai-lamb-curry photo via braai.com

 

First you will need to learn some words so you can find your way around the menus and the supermarkets:

Biltong Dried and salted meat, similar to beef jerky, but available in ostrich, kudu or any other kind of red meat. South Africa’s favourite snack.

Bobotie A dish of Malay origin, made with minced meat and spices, and topped with an egg sauce.

Boerewors  Literally means farmer’s sausage, lovingly called boerie. Similar to Bratwurst, but with lots of coriander and in one long piece, meant to be chopped up and shared and usually eaten as a starter when braaing.

Bredie  A traditional mutton stew, first brought to the country by Malay immigrants. It now refers to any kind of stew.

Bunny Chow Delicious and cheap food on the go, bunny chow is curry served in a hollowed-out half-loaf of bread. Perfect for eating on the side of the road while backpacking.

Chakalaka A spicy vegetable relish which is said to have originated in the townships of Johannesburg. Usually served with bread, samp, pap or stew.

Mielie Maize or corn. A mielie is a maize cob, and mieliemeel is maize meal.

Pad kos Important for Travelettes as one need snacks on the go and that’s what it is – road food.

Pap A porridge made from mieliemeel cooked with water and salt to a fairly stiff consistency, the staple diet of most South Africans.

Peri Peri A chili sauce with Portuguese origin and put on anything chicken.

Potjikos  Literally small pot food. A stew, usually made outdoors and traditionally in a cast iron pot over the fire.

Samosa  A small, spicy, triangular-shaped pie deep-fried in oil. Originally made by the Indian and Malay communities, now favorite snack of all.

Samp & Beans Another South African staple and one of Mandela’s favourite foods: slowly cooked sugar beans and crushed corn kernels.

Slap chips French fries, usually soft, oily, and vinegar-drenched, bought in a brown paper bag. Slap is Afrikaans for limp, which is how French fries are generally made in South Africa.

However if there is one food term to rule all others it would have to be braai. September 24th is Heritage Day in South Africa, most commonly known as National Braai Day. A nation that is euphemistically called a rainbow nation, but that is still very divided by history, race, and income has found a common denominator on their Heritage Day: grilled food.

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A braai is a basically a barbeque, grillen as the Germans call it, but here it is so much more – it is a way of life. So lose your American, call it braai, and an invite to a Bring & Braai will surely follow; as the name implies you simply bring to the host’s house whatever you wish to have braaied. Though one could say that braai season officially starts with Heritage Day, braaing really happens all year long. In winter the eating part is moved inside, but the braaing stands as it is, because everything just tastes better when it comes in smoked charcoal flavour. South African TV not only sports it very own Masterchef, but also an Ultimate Braaimaster to honour the tradition.

via Cooked in Africa

Girls, I hate to say it, but braaing is a men’s world. It is their job to light the fire, put the braaivleis on, and stand around with a beer in hand, mates on their side. It is their ritual and personally I am fine to let them have it and just eat the spoils. This brings me to another point: the meat. Sorry, vegetarians, but South Africans love meat and make no excuses for it. If you dream of rib eye, sirloin, and lamb cutlets you have come to the land of milk and honey. Even my Argentinian uncle will look sheepish when asked if Argentina or South Africa has the better meat and he usually evades the answer. Free range is the all the rage and many butcheries and chefs have come up in recent years bringing unusual cuts and a whole nose to tail philosophy back on the table. So even if you prefer not to go all the way African and cook an entire sheep’s head you can find something unusual here. If you prefer it simple, go for another African signature dish – chicken. Also try lean ostrich or venison like kudu and if you need something a bit more exotic have some crocodile nuggets.

If you prefer your cost from the ocean look no further, because with a coast line of 2500km it doesn’t get any fresher when it comes to Sushi & Co. Squid and baby calamari are beloved starters, kingklip and hake are eaten filleted or, yes again, braaied whole or are available as a casual fish ‘n chips snack at the harbours.

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If you don’t mind to work for you food, get yourself a license at the post office and get your own catch of crayfish and mussels. Find someone to light a fire, a potjikos, and a bottle of chilled Chardonnay and voila you have yourself a perfect beach dinner.

via Bern le Roux

Malay and Indian cuisine will be your choice if you are craving curry, spices, and vegetarian options. Durban has taken the Indian curry and given it a unique and local twist. In Cape Town’s Bo Kaap you can take lessons in samosa and bobotie making.

via Sardines on Toast

Shy of heat and foreign flavours? Whether you are in the Johannesburg metropolis or Midlands’ countryside you are sure to find an evening market you can try small morsels of local favourites over a glass of craft beer.

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On the weekends there are farmers’ markets everywhere and connect local veggie gardens with city folk. Trace it back to Company Gardens in 1652 which was built to provide trading ships with fresh greens, but South Africans still think local is lekker today. Restaurants from big to small provide seasonal food, often directly from the backyard onto the plate; rustic or refined there is something for every taste. Freshly baked bread, hearty meat stews, bowls of butternut soup, and big platters of veggies and salads can be found in the country.

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For those who like fine dining fear not, but rejoice in a favourable exchange rate that allows gourmet meals on student budgets. Rightfully so South African’s top establishments can at least play with the big shots in Spain, London, and New York and have made it the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in recent years.

via The Test Kitchen

Though most fancy restaurants cluster in the urban areas, throughout the country you will find eateries that cook with love, skill, and a dose of je ne sais quoi South Africa, leaving most visitors surprised and wanting more. When you get to that point ask for a malva pudding to fill the sweet tooth or some Winelands cheese to seal the stomach.

If regular restaurants are not your thing find a food truck for some grub or attend one of many pop-up and secret dinners. The annual Spier Secret Festival started the trend and foodies not only attend to learn about food but also to have some fun with it. So you may just find yourself at someone’s house, eating scrambled ostrich egg in the dark or in a little store clad in gold foil, making dim sum and your own wine blend.

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I will tell you my personal top eateries soon, but if you come to South Africa in the meanwhile don’t worry, because wherever you eat, it is almost impossible to have a bad meal in here. Just like it is impossible to have a bad glass of South African wine.