Top 10 Most Popular South African Foods

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South African cuisine is as diverse as its culture. It is no wonder that people call it the rainbow nation, as the country is home to many ethnicities from almost every country around the globe. Interestingly, foreign dishes that migrated to the country saw an evolution in their original recipes but remain respectful to their origin. 

Most of the world views racial differentiation as black or white, while South Africans are a blend of almost everyone. Caucasians from Europe are a blend of mostly Dutch, German, French, and English. People of color could be blends from several tribes, which have different, unique cultural dishes that play a vital role in creating South Africa’s pallet.

Here are the top ten dishes that evolved to become the most popular favorites among the locals. Each comes with a variety of recipes, but we’ll explain the core ingredients that make these dishes unique. It will be interesting to see how they evolve in the next 1,000 years.

1. Bobotie (pronounced ba-bo-tea)

Many argue about the origin of Bobotie. The Roman writer Apicius described a similar dish that has layers of meat and spices. The Dutch, however, recorded a recipe in 1609 that migrated to South Africa and that the Cape Malay community spiced up to what is today. 

Bobotie is minced meat spiced with medium heat curry, turmeric, garlic, lemon zest, onions, herbs, salt and pepper. Most like to add raisins. Baked until fully cooked, the dish is topped with an egg and milk mixture and placed back into the oven to set. 

Once the top custard-type layer has set, the dish is cut into squares and served on top of yellow rice (long grain white rice cooked with turmeric and raisins) and melted apricot jam and fruit chutney.

2. Biltong and Droëwors (Dried Sausage)

Biltong and Droëwors are cured meat consumed as tasty snacks. This delicacy is culturally associated with watching rugby, cricket, and football (soccer), the most popular sports in the country, or while traveling on long road trips. 

Biltong is meat cuts soaked in a brine and hung to cure. This is an ancient maritime method of preserving meat. Although not healthy, locals prefer biltong with generous layers of fat.

Droëwors (dried sausage) goes through a similar process, but instead of meat cuts, ground beef mince and mutton fat are mixed together with spices to make a thin sausage. The sausage hangs to cure.

3. Potjiekos

Potjiekos translates literally as “food made in a pot”. The flavor of the dish thanks its significance to a type of potjie, also called a Dutch oven, and the cooking process. Any stew recipe works well, but the traditional method is to layer fresh vegetables on top of meat with a little sauce—the cast-iron pot cooks on a low heat, usually outside on a small fire. Control of fire heat is an art that most indigenous South Africans were taught from a young age.

Experienced cooks avoid lifting the lid to check the dish as much as possible so that the pot’s contents retain its heat and moisture. The cooking time is determined by the number of layers and chunky meat, which is usually at the bottom. 

When the food is ready, it isn’t stirred, but is dished up with one scoop from the bottom. Sinewy chunks of meat turn to jelly, making the meat tender and tasty.

4. Biryani

Biryani is made from Indian spices, rice, and meat. The meat is usually beef mince or chicken, but traditionally goat, prawn, pork, lamb, or fish were used. The word birian in Persian means “fried before cooking”. The dish is made precisely in this way, and the rice and meat are mixed after cooking. This dish recently became popular in the rest of the country as people of color with Muslim ancestry released their secrets.

The mixed spices usually have a strong but balanced flavor. Locals incorporate their own twist by adding lentils and vegetables.

5. Boerewors (translated as farmer sausage)

To foreigners, boerewors looks like a plain sausage, but butchers in South Africa are very familiar with the strict rules for making this sausage authentically. Locals classify the quality of a butcher by the quality of their boerewors. There is leeway for butchers to put their own creative spin on the dish, as long as they follow the guidelines, which are:

  • The sausage should contain at least 90% meat. 
  • The remaining 10% should only be spices and other ingredients.
  • The meat blend must always be a majority of roughly ground beef. Pork and lamb may be added for flavor and consistency.
  • The meat must not contain more than 30% fat.

Locals traditionally braai (barbeque) boerewors over a fire, and while cooking, it is essential not to prick the casing—all the juices will run out, resulting in a dry sausage.

6. Mealie Pap (Maize Porridge / Meal)

This coarse maize meal is a staple in a majority of households. It is cheap, doesn’t need to be refrigerated, and stays fresh for a long time. The maize is cooked with water. The water to mealie meal ratio depends on the consistency required for the meal. Generally, stywe pap (thickness of polenta) is cooked with a 1:1 ratio with water and is good to eat with stews and meat. Crumbly porridge, almost like couscous, is the alternative to stywe pap, but slap pap (runny porridge) is usually eaten for breakfast with milk, sugar, and butter. 

7. Vetkoek (Fried Bread)

A vetkoek is an unhealthy version of a burger bun. It is crispy and golden on the outside while fluffy on the inside. Locals stuff them with curried mince or chicken mayo mixtures. Smaller ones are eaten as fritters or with a dollop of butter and jam, very much like flapjacks.

8. Sosaties

Another dish of Malay origin is sosaties, more commonly known in the rest of the world as kebabs. They are skewered meat and vegetables marinated in a spicy sauce. Sosatie meat usually consists of either lamb, chicken, beef or pork. Locals typically cook them on a braai (barbeque) to add a smoky flavor.

9. Koeksisters

A koeksister is a sweet snack of twisted and plaited dough infused (INFUSED WITH WHAT?)and fried until golden and crunchy. It’s much like the Chinese bowtie but smaller, thicker, and much sweeter. The twisted or folded strips of dough are fried in hot oil and then immediately dunked into cold syrup or honey. The dough sucks up the sweet stuff and becomes crispy. The koeksister is slightly hard on the outside while soft and sweet on the inside. They are so revered that the town of Orania erected a koeksister statue to celebrate women who sell their baked goods to raise money for churches and schools.

10. Melktert (Milk Tart)

The most famous South African dessert is a melktert (milk tart). It is made with a sweet pastry crust and a filling like a very light cheesecake. The ingredients of the filling are milk, flour, sugar, and eggs. The ratio makes sure that the filling sets while it tastes predominantly of milk. The tart is always topped with powdered cinnamon. Over the years, locals have created recipes that don’t involve baking, and the substitution of milk with powdered milk allows the lactose intolerant to enjoy it too.

The dessert shouldn’t be confused with an alcoholic beverage of the same name created by locals that tastes similar.