Top 17 Most Popular South African Foods
South African cuisine is as diverse as its culture. It is no wonder that people call it the rainbow nation, as it is home to many ethnicities from almost every country. Interestingly, foreign dishes that migrated to the country saw an evolution in their original recipes but remained respectful of their origin.
Most of the world views ethnicity in terms of black or white, while South Africans are a blend of almost everyone. Caucasians from Europe blend Dutch, German, French, and English primarily.
People of color have various tribal origins, each with traditional cultural dishes that play a vital role in creating South Africa’s palate. In addition, waves of immigrants, for example from Malaysia and the Indian subcontinent, have all made their unique contributions to the South African culture and cuisine.
Here are the top South African foods that have evolved into the most popular local favorites. Each comes with various recipes, but we’ll explain the core ingredients that make these dishes unique. Then, it will be interesting to see the effect of South Africa’s melting pot on how they continue to evolve.
1. Bobotie (pronounced ba-bo-tea)
Bobotie is a must-try dish when visiting South Africa.
Bobotie is a delicious minced meat spiced with medium-hot curry, turmeric, garlic, lemon zest, onions, herbs, salt, and pepper. Many people like to add raisins. Once baked until fully cooked, the dish is topped with an egg and milk mixture and placed back into the oven to set.
When 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), perhaps with a melted apricot fruit chutney on the side.
Many argue about the origins of Bobotie. Back to the Roman times, a similar dish with layers of meat and spices was described by Roman writer Apicius. The Dutch, however, recorded a bobotie recipe in 1609 and brought it to South Africa. Then the Cape Malay community spiced it up to what bobotie is today.
2. Biltong and Droëwors (Dried Sausage)
Biltong and Droëwors are cured meat consumed as tasty snacks. This local 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 brine and hung to cure – an ancient maritime method of preserving meat. Although not considered 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 with spices to make a thin, cured sausage.
Potjiekos translates literally as “food made in a pot”. Of course, 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 low heat, usually outside on a small fire. Control of fire heat is an art that most indigenous South Africans learned from an early age.
Experienced cooks avoid lifting the lid to check the dish as much as possible so that the pot’s contents retain heat and moisture. The cooking time is determined by the number of layers and chunky meat, usually at the bottom.
When the food is ready, it isn’t stirred but rather dished up with one scoop from the bottom. Sinewy chunks of meat turn to jelly, making the meat tender and tasty. It’s a must-try for all visitors to South Africa.
South Africa is home to a large Indian population. The majority live in and around the city of Durban, making it one of the largest ethnically Indian-populated cities outside of India.
No surprise then to find many traditional Indian dishes among the most popular foods in South Africa. Biryani is made from Indian spices, rice, and meat. The meat is usually beef mince or chicken, but goat, prawns, pork, lamb, or fish can be used as well.
The word ‘birian’ in Persian means “fried before cooking” and the dish is made precisely in this way: the rice and meat are cooked separately and only mixed thereafter. The mixed spices usually have a strong but balanced flavor, so they are not too fiery. Some South Africans also like adding lentils and vegetables.
5. Boerewors (Farmer’s Sausage)
South Africans classify the quality of a butcher by the quality of their boerewors. Although these look like plain sausage to visitors, butchers in South Africa are familiar with the strict rules governing the making of this authentic delicacy.
However, there is some leeway for butchers to put their creative spin on the dish, as long as they follow the guidelines, which are:
- The sausage should contain at least 90% meat or fat from beef, pork, lamb or goat.
- 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)
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. Generally, stywe pap (thick polenta) is cooked with a 1:1 balance with water and is a perfect partner for stews and meat.
Don’t get your paps mixed up, though! Crumbly porridge, almost like couscous, is the alternative to stywe pap, whereas slap pap (runny porridge) is usually eaten for breakfast with milk, sugar, and butter.
7. Vetkoek (Fried Bread)
Vetkoeks, also known as amagwinya in Xhosa and Zulu, can be described as unhealthy, but delicious burger buns!
Resembling the Dutch oliebol, or Jamaican Johnny cakes, these fried dough balls are crispy and golden on the outside while fluffy on the inside. South Africans like to stuff them with curried mince or chicken mayo mixtures.
They are popular fast-food snacks, sold everywhere by street vendors and small, local restaurants.
They are skewered meat and vegetables marinated in a spicy sauce. Sosatie meat is either lamb, chicken, beef, or pork. Locals enjoy cooking them outside on a braai (barbeque) to add a smoky flavor.
A koeksister is a sweet treat of twisted and plaited dough drizzled in syrup (or honey) and lemon juice – after being fried until golden and crunchy.
It’s much like the Chinese bowtie but smaller, thicker, and sweeter. The koeksister is slightly crunchy on the outside and 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. In addition, as they were served to Nelson Mandela by Mrs Betsie Verwoerd the widow of the former Prime Minister and architect of apartheid, they have come to be regarded as symbols of peace and reconciliation.
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 filling is made with milk, flour, sugar, and eggs – the ratio ensures that it sets, yet retains the predominantly milky flavor. This luscious tart is always topped with powdered cinnamon.
Over the years, locals have created recipes that don’t involve baking, and substituting regular milk with lactose-free versions allows those with intolerance or allergies to enjoy it too.
A word of caution! This dessert shouldn’t be confused with an alcoholic beverage of the same name created by locals that tastes surprisingly similar!
11. Malva pudding
Next to the milk tart, this is one of the most iconic South African desserts. Malva pudding is served just about everywhere. 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. Simply delicious!
12. 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).
Geelrys, translated to yellow rice, 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 in South Africa.
14. Hertzoggies (Hertzogkoekie)
Hertzoggies or Hertzogkoekie in Afrikaans are pastry tartlets filled with a delightful mix of apricot jam and coconut.
They were invented when General JBM Hertzog was campaigning for to become prime minister, promising that he would give women the right to vote and that the Cape Malay people would have equal rights to white people. He won, but sadly he only made true on his promise to women.
While this fine little treat has a messy political history, it maintains its elegance by being the perfect delicious accompaniment to English tea.
A great traditional dish made with simple and inexpensive ingredients; many regularly grannies make this milk porridge. Quick preparation of milk cooked with flour until thickened and flavored with cinnamon and sugar, and sometimes topped with butter and a little naartjie or orange zest. A great way to warm up on a cold day.
Sambals are a variety of spicy condiment originally from Indonesia and Malaysia (called sambal oelek), and brought to South Africa by Malay and Indonesian immigrants where they have become a fixture of Cape Malay cuisine. They are now popular 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.
These are popular traditional Afrikaner pastry plaits made of fried dough infused in syrup or honey.
Doughnut 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.
Have we missed any of your favorite South African dishes off this list? We love hearing from you, so leave us a comment below and share your suggestions with our community!