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South African Cuisine and Recipes

South African Recipes, Food and Cooking

Cooking by Country - September 2003


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Go to:-   S.Africa Speciality Dish  |  S.Africa  Featured Ingredient  |  Cooking by Country Main Page



The term "Rainbow Nation" is the perfect description of the South African population which is made up of many different peoples. As would be expected, with such diversity comes an explosion of culinary cultures forming a unique cuisine worthy of note.


The country has a  2,954km coastline bordering both the Indian and Atlantic oceans so fresh fish and seafood are abundant. However  the "temperate" climate (with average maximum temperatures of about 25C/77F in the summer)  plus adequate rainfall,  makes for good natural grazing for livestock and excellent farm land so fresh produce and a variety of domestic animals abound .


Ancient Times, History and Influences on South African Cooking


Hunter gatherers first occupied this land of plenty  thousands of years ago. Among them the nomadic San, Bushmen and Khoikhoi, collectively called The Khoisan lived mainly along the south-west coastal strips. Their diets were rich with meat and game….and insects such as termites, mopane worms (caterpillars) and Locusts.


By the 3rd century AD, the Bantu people who had settled the eastern coastal areas, were practiced in farming, growing corn, sweet potato, millet and other vegetables and raising and keeping livestock such as cattle.


It seems very strange that fish didn't feature in the diets of the Khoisan, however there was a small group of native people called Goringhaicona (nicknamed Strandlopers or Watermen by the Portuguese) who are said to have survived purely on shellfish, the flesh of beached whales, penguins, segulls and certain root vegetables.


Whilst it was the Portuguese who were the first Europeans to set foot in South Africa, it was the Dutch, French Huguenots and English who were to have the most influence on the cuisine. Many would say that food was the main instigator for the arrival of the Europeans in their search of a stop-over place en route to trade for spices back in the 1600s. Amongst other things they introduced sausage and stews such as potjiekos and bredies and cultivated crops such as beans, peas, spinach and lettuce.


The expansion and fortification of Dutch settlements led to the import of slaves towards the end of the 17th century as the local Khoisan proved difficult to "press into service". Whilst the very first slaves were Africans from places such as Mozambique, Madagascar and Angola, it soon became apparent that it was easier to import Malay slaves from Java. It was the Malay's superior knowledge of using spices and their expertise in fishing which would drastically change Cape cooking. They also brought with them saltpetre used for pickling.


By the 19th Century indentured workers from India came to work on the sugar plantations adding a further band to the culinary rainbow as did German immigrants.


Current Day South African Cuisine


Many dishes eaten today are closely based on dishes from past times, such as Pap, an accompaniment made from maize and eaten much like rice, which was and is a native black African staple, Bobotie, a spicy Malay dish similar to Shepherds Pie and Potjiekos which became an important dish during the Afrikaner's great trek and which you can read about in the Speciality Dish section. Amongst other favourites of the various cultures are biltong or dried meat,  Boerewors, a type of sausage which is a legacy from German immigrants and Chakalaka which is a salad of Malay/Indian origin.


Another popular South African pastime is the braai, equivalent to our barbecue, which also dates back from the trekking days. All manner of fresh foods are cooked over coals and most suburban houses have a braai area.


As with many cuisines, a  typical South African meal can range from from  one dish  to several dishes served at the same time or  in courses. There are few hard and fast rules and this cuisine  has something for everyone: from  fresh crayfish simply cooked, to spicy Malay curries, to hearty Dutch stews and even variations on the British meat pie. 



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