19 Popular South African Christmas Dishes
South Africa inherited many of its Christmas food traditions from the British. However, as an ethnically diverse country with 11 official languages, there is no single tradition that applies to everyone in South Africa.
Regardless of your heritage or language, Christmas is a time of fun, festivity, and, of course, food. Despite falling in the full force of summer, Christmas meals include hot dishes, with roasts or braais (barbecues) being common, accompanied with a range of salads, side dishes, and desserts. Let’s sit down to a South African Christmas meal.
APPETIZERS AND SIDE DISHES
1. Classic Potato Bake
This cheesy and creamy potato bake is always a favorite at South African braais, and is simple to make with basic ingredients.
The trick is to slice the potatoes very thinly so they bake evenly, and to slow-cook them to allow them to absorb the flavored liquid. Jazz it up with whatever extras you like, such as mushrooms, bacon, or biltong (South African dried meat, similar to jerky).
2. Geel Rys
Geel Rys is a delicious sweet and savory rice seasoned with turmeric, lemon rind, raisins, and cinnamon. The turmeric is what gives it its name, yellow rice, and it is one of the most popular dishes prepared at Christmas.
Chakalaka is a South African vegetable relish originating from the townships. It is packed with flavor and spiciness and goes well with bread, stews or meat from a braai. There is no standard way of preparing it, so you can experiment to your heart’s content.
Delicious hot or cold, chakalaka can spice up (literally and figuratively) any dish.
Simple, seasonal vegetables always accompany a Christmas meal. Corn on the cob is a favorite, plus a variety of squashes such as butternut or gem, stewed cabbage, and green bean salad with green beans and olives.
Sambals are a variety of spicy condiment originally from Indonesia and Malaysia, and brought to South Africa where they have become a fixture of Cape Malay cuisine. They are now found throughout South Africa.
These light mixtures, similar to salads, come in dozens of varieties. Popular ones include cucumber and jalapeno for a perfect flavor profile juxtaposition, and tomato, onion, chili, and coriander.
6. Amadumbe (Taro Root)
The Zulu culture enjoys this root vegetable at Christmas, although, as a staple crop, it is enjoyed year-round. Similar to a potato, it is delicious and versatile, and can be boiled, roasted, grilled, fried or mashed.
7. Umncushu (Samp, Beans, and Peanuts)
Popular in Xhosa culture, the main ingredient is samp, which is dehulled maize kernels that have been pounded until broken. The samp and beans are boiled until soft, then mashed together and mixed with ground peanuts. The beans most often used are sugar or jugo beans, but any other dried bean can be used.
Think of very thick mashed potatoes with bits of corn and beans mixed in and you have umncushu. Other vegetables, herbs, and spices can also be added for extra flavor. And the kind of stuck crust at the bottom of the pot, called skhokho, is the best part! Umncushu can be served plain, or with other sides like gravy, and meat stews.
8. Mealie Bread
Mealie bread is a traditional South African bread made with corn. Unlike cornbread made in other parts of the world that use corn kernels to make corn flour, mealie bread is made with creamed corn, resulting in a sweet and creamy bread that is often eaten while still hot, either before or during a meal.
Main dishes at Christmastime are meant to be hearty and filling, and South Africans never disappoint in this respect. They usually involve meats such as lamb, gammon, seafood, or other temptations. Regardless of the meal, Christmas is often enjoyed outdoors in the sunshine.
South Africans love their gammon, whether at Christmas or at other times of the year. It’s a great option in the heat of December, as it’s not as heavy and is quick to cook.
You can roast your gammon in any of many varieties of glazes or sauces: popular ones include honey, with or without Dijon mustard, brandy and coke (South Africans love their brannas and coke), or chutney. Roast the gammon with the glaze on it, or serve a tasty fruit chutney alongside it.
Lamb is a pleasure at any time, but at Christmas, it’s a wonderful indulgence. Either slow-roasted in the oven, or grilled on the braai, this succulent meat is typically enjoyed with potatoes and vegetables, such as butternut squash, baby marrows, or green beans.
11. Fish and Seafood
With the entire Southern and Western coasts of South Africa bordering the seas, fish and seafood often grace Christmas tables, served as appetizers or a first course before the meat dishes. You can find an abundance of crayfish, mussels, prawns and line-fish, such as hake or Kingklip, along the long South African shoreline.
Kingklip is a true South African fish, found only in the waters surrounding the country. It’s a firm white fish with large flakes, so it is easy to cook in any wat, but particularly good simply grilled with butter and lemon.
Another popular meal, especially in the Western Cape, are sosaties. Meat is marinated in a delicious apricot and curry marinade then grilled on skewers with dried apricots or cubed vegetables.
They can be served as main meal or a snack. Lamb is the most common meat to use, but they can be made with chicken or beef as well, making them a versatile and easy-to-make crowd-pleaser.
South African bobotie is another Western Cape traditional recipe that is easy to make but full of flavor. Ground lamb or beef is seasoned with lemon juice, onions, raisins, apple, almonds, soaked bread, with an egg and milk topping.
The ingredients are mixed and roasted in the oven with bay leaves, creating the typical aromas of the holidays.
While not a dessert per se, this cream liqueur with a slight fruity caramel taste can be enjoyed on its own as dessert, poured over ice, shaken into cocktails, or can be that je ne sais quoi in a number of dishes and desserts.
It is made with cream, sugar, and the fruit of the marula tree, which is also called the elephant tree or the marriage tree. I do!
15. Malva Pudding
While the origins of malva pudding are debated to this day, there is no doubt about its place in the hearts of South Africans. A soft and springy cake with flavors of apricot jam and caramel is topped with a sweet creamy sauce and served with a thin custard and ice cream.
For the adults, a glass of Amarula on ice, or a splash on the pudding itself is a treat. Possibly the most iconic South African dessert, Christmas would not be the same without it.
16. Mince Pies
Undoubtedly, this is the quintessential South African Christmas tradition, since, well, there is no snow. It is so ubiquitous, that you often see contests for the best mince pie in the country. While a small fruit tart may seem easy to make, the battle is to get the right proportions of filling to pastry, sweetness, and overall taste.
South Africans even take it to the next level by sometimes baking them on the braai with the lid on. Regardless of how you make them, these sweet and crumbly pies are the perfect gift to any Christmas meal.
These are donut dough properly proofed, then rolled out into ropes and braided, deep fried, and dunked in ice cold sweet syrup while still hot. While a little tricky to perfect, they are worth the effort. Dough and sticky sweet syrup – even the imperfect ones must be delicious!
18. Hertzog Cookies
Hertzoggies are uniquely South African pastry tartlets filled with a delightful mix of apricot jam and coconut. It is an elegant treat perfect as a delicious accompaniment to English tea.
South Africans love their custard and have it with cake, biscuits, fruit, jelly, or on its own. Of course, if you can have all of this wonderfulness together in one dessert, then even better! Voila, trifle!
Since it’s the festive season, you will want to make it boozy by pouring some classic Old Brown sherry, Klipdrift brandy or Amarula cream liqueur over the biscuits. Cheers!
Related: 10 Most Popular South African Foods
Related: Most Popular South African Desserts