Most Popular International Cuisines in South Africa
South African is known as the rainbow nation because so many of its people originated from Europe and Africa. Existing as a port when Jan van Riebeeck, Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama and many others needed to replenish supplies, South Africans have been exposed to foreign cuisine since the 1600s.
Incorporating the best of foreign influence into their own dishes, South Africans are open to diverse international cuisines. But which ones have made the most impact?
Google Trends reveal the locals’ preferred indulgences. Just as in the rest of the developed world, their options are vast, from Italian to Vietnamese cuisine.
But much of the nation’s interest in ethnic food boils down to availability, what they can afford, and what they feel confident enough to cook at home. Here are the top ten ethnic cuisines that have sparked the South African population’s interest the most.
How We Compiled the Data
Google provides data on a whole range of topics, including national cuisines, and allocates a score that indicates the level of interest in the topic.
Google uses AI to categorize search terms for national cuisines. For example Japanese cuisine will comprise hundreds or thousands of searches related to the topic such as Japanese restaurants, Japanese rice, sushi, sushi recipes, Japanese food, and even names of well known Japanese restaurants.
Google then counts how often they are used in countries, regional areas, towns and cities relative to all local searches and allocates an interest score.
For example if Western Cape scores 100 for Chinese cuisine and Gauteng scores 80, it means that there is a higher percentage of people from the Western Cape searching for Chinese cuisine, but not necessarily that there are more searches made from Western Cape compared to Gauteng.
Read on to find out how the world’s food ranked in South Africa this year.
10. Vietnamese Cuisine (Popularity Score 4)
In last place, Vietnamese food gained two points on the previous year. This cuisine may have a short history in the country, around 20 years, but South Africans are loving this low fat, healthy diet of sweet, sour, salty flavors. But with few restaurants located in the mainstream areas, it’s still not so easy to dine out on Vietnamese food.
9. Korean (Popularity Score 4)
Scoring the same as Vietnamese food this year, Korean food popularity dropped one point to four. Like Vietnamese cuisine, the main thing holding back popularity is exposure to the food, as there’s few Korean restaurants in mainstream areas. But where they are, they are loved, particularly the Korean BBQ.
8. Lebanese Cuisine (Popularity Score 5)
Lebanese food is enjoying increasing popularity worldwide, and South Africa is not being left out. This oh so tasty cuisine rose two points this year to 5 in the popularity table. And it’s not just popular for eating out. Courses for cooking this healthy, fruit and vegetable-filled food are also on the rise.
Just the names of the dishes are inviting themselves: tabbouleh, fattoush, manakish, kanafeh…
7. Greek (Popularity Score 11)
Souvlaki, moussaka, keftedes and pastitsio are dishes South Africans can relate to as they’re similar to local favourites. Dips like tzatziki and tahini are welcome flavour to their palates, though taramosalata still has a way to go in the popularity stakes.
Still, it’s the freshness of seasonal dishes which intrigues locals as many fruit and veg stores are run by Greeks. Their stores survive because they supply mostly to restaurants while displaying impressive delicacies like Halva in their deli sections. Greek cuisine gained one popularity point since last year by moving from ten to eleven points.
6. Japanese (Popularity Score 14)
While 700 restaurants offer sushi, according to Chef’s Wonderland, probably only around 10-20 serve really authentic Japanese food. But the cuisine has great growth potential here – once the coronavirus crisis settles down.
It has affected the supply of ingredients and many sushi conveyor belts have stood empty. but expect a drastic change in 2021 when everything, hopefully, returns to normal.
5. Italian (Popularity Score 15)
Dropping in nine popularity points compared to the previous year, it is no wonder that Domino’s Pizza bailed from the South African economy.
But Italians began settling here over 4 centuries ago so the culture has a long and rich history so the love of Italian food is not going to die out. It is most popular in the Western Cape (Score 100) followed by Kwazulu-Natal (Score 73) and Gauteng (Score 69). And being easy and affordable to cook, locals Italian food is a pleasure to replicate at home – locals are now well-oiled Italian cooking machines.
4. Mexican (Popularity Score 36)
South Africans love spicy food, so it’s no surprise that Mexican is one of their top favorites. This year maintaining its overall national 4th position, it is most popular in the Western Cape (Score 100) and Gauteng (Score 66), followed way back by the Eastern Cape (Score 55).
Mexican food isn’t part of the South African culture, but snacking on delicacies is. The food closely resembles Muslim/ Indian variants – which does represent a large portion of the population – but with a variety of different fillings. Hand-sized munching bits make it easy to impress guests with snacks to while watching sporting events or as appetizers at a braai, “barbeque”.
3. Indian (Popularity Score 46)
Indian food in South Africa decreased in popularity over the last year, meaning it dropped from second place with 64 points to third and 46 points. It is no surprise that Kwazulu-Natal has the highest regional score of 100 as its capital city Durban is considered the largest Indian city outside India due to the size of its immigrant population of second and third-generation Indians.
On the heels of Kwazulu-Natal is the Western Cape with 94 points and Gauteng further down with 75 points. One of the most popular and affordable Indian/ South African dishes, is Bunnychow: not made with a cute rabbit, but with beef or chicken. It’s an example of how much part of South African cuisine Indian food has become.
2. Thai (Popularity Score 47)
Thai food jumped in popularity this year from from 43 in 2019 to 47. Not a big jump but enough to move it from third to second place. Regionally, Thai cuisine is most popular in the Western Cape, with a score of 100 points, with second spot taken by Kwazulu-Natal, which trails far behind with a very low 48 and the Eastern Cape on Score 40.
South Africans used to find it difficult to distinguish between Indian and Thai cuisine, but that’s changing as they become more interested in the diverse cuisines available. Thai food is something new, so we can expect to see a sharp rise in popularity as South Africans discover this fresh and tasty cuisine.
1. Chinese (Popularity Score 74)
With its closest rival, Thai, 27 popularity points behind, Chinese food in South Africa relaxed into first place this year with a score of 74. Regionally, the scores are closer with Western Cape scoring 100, followed close behind by Eastern Cape with 96 and Gauteng with 80.
South Africans are more familiar with Chinese cuisine than any other, and although they’re stuck mostly on sweet and sour pork, king tau ribs and bow ties, locals also try to duplicate the dishes at home.
Chinese immigration has a long history beginning in 1660, just after Jan van Riebeeck landed on South African soil. But many more were encouraged over in the early 1990s to work in the gold mines around Johannesburg.
These laborers were mostly Cantonese and Hakka but later, especially over the last 20 years, they came from many other regions of China, bringing the full range of delicious Chinese cuisine with them.
Chef’s Pencil has analysed Google Trends data for the year 2020 (data compiled on October 1st 2020). Google Trends popularity scores are relative and not absolute. Please see below how Google defines regional popularity scores:
Values are calculated on a scale from 0 to 100, where 100 is the location with the most popularity as a fraction of total searches in that location, a value of 50 indicates a location which is half as popular. A value of 0 indicates a location where there was not enough data for this term.
Note: A higher value means a higher proportion of all queries, not a higher absolute query count. So a tiny country where 80% of the queries are for “bananas” will get twice the score of a giant country where only 40% of the queries are for “bananas”.
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Story by Jürgen Smith and Caroline Williams for Chef’s Pencil.