A Foodie tour of South Africa – 8 delicious (and unusual) things to try

Beautiful beaches, great weather, incredible wildlife, easy to travel in - South Africa has so much going for it as so many international travellers have experienced already. 

It is affordable with your strong USD or Euro, it has great options and variations of accommodation options, there is so much to see and to do that a full month's holiday still only scratches the surface.

But what about the food? Is this the destination to choose if you are a foodie and love to try new things? Well, to make things easy; yes and no. Dining out in Port Elizabeth, Cape Town or Johannesburg offers you all the options you can wish for and shows a truly international choice of food options - Thai, Mexican, sushi, steak restaurants, Italian and so much more. You will be spoilt for choices in the big cities with an offering of reputable and internationally acclaimed restaurants of which some will even sport Michelin stars to show what they are worth.

But what about the real foodie culture in South Africa, away from the touristic routes and European/Western influences? What do real South Africans eat and enjoy and are you ready to give it a try?

1. Braai meat

 This is the ultimate meal to bring people together and not just a meal but a true activity to be enjoyed with friends and family. Also called “Shisa Nyama” (literally translated as “grilled meat”), this meal has risen above the BBQ meal you might expect and has become a highly social activity with friends and family.

Nobody will ask you if you like to eat “braai”, but they will instead ask you if you come and braai with them. A braai is far more than just a meal, it is an activity. Depending on the crowd you are braaiing with (yes, it is a verb!), this means lamb chops, boerewors (rolled-up farm sausage), steak, skilpadjies (chopped lamb liver in stomach fat – delicious!), chicken sosaties (kebabs, as you might know them) and many other forms of meat to be tanned over the hot coals.

No true South African will use a gas grill like the Aussies do, but use charcoal and wood only. Keep in mind that a braai can span many hours, and depending on the number of beers and quantity of wine consumed can easily turn into a 11PM dinner with overcooked and cold meat. It is far from a five-star culinary affair (with individual exceptions of course!). 3 -bean salad, potato salad drenched in mayo, hotdog buns and huge amounts of meat are the expected outcome of the braai.

A braai is an experience not to be missed – it’s a true South African activity rather than a culinary affair. Vegans and Vegetarians are still welcome at the braai but bring with something yourself if you want to eat more than just the salads.

2. Smilie

This is a true connoisseur’s choice for something new - the famous Smilie. You might ask yourself what this strangely-named meal could be, so brace yourself: it is half a sheep’s head grilled over the fire.

Whereas  in the Western world we like to hide all those bits and pieces we “don’t eat” in hotdog sausages or cold meats like polony so you don’t recognize the source of the meat you are eating, in Africa we don’t mind tackling it as it comes – or head-on, if you like!

The Smilie is created by firstly throwing a sheep’s head into the open flames to burn off all hair. Poke it with a stick a bit, it seems to help. Then we get out the bow saw and with some effort we saw the head in 2 pieces. Those pieces will then go back onto the braai to grill the meat, sinew and skin to a semi-crispy outcome, which is then eaten with delight using our hands.

I must say that the meat on the cheeks is very tasty but the consistency of sinew and skin still has to grow on me. Oh, yes, before I forget v- It is called a Smilie because the grilled flesh on your sheep’s head will pull up the lips and show off the “smile” of the sheep, therefore conveniently called a Smilie.

3. Run Aways

Another of our local delicacies takes some getting used to. The Run Away is nothing less than the feet of the chicken – yes, the feet, not the leg, toes, nails and all. The first time I tried this speciality I wondered what there was to eat on this specific part of the chicken and it appears that the fat and skin on those yellowish orangey-looking feet are edible. After finishing this dish you will apparently have to clean your teeth with the gnawed-off toes of your chosen chicken feet just to show how much you enjoyed it.

4. African Salad

This is a total surprise to most, as there is little to recognize as potentially being anything salad-like about this dish. There are no greens, nor any vegetables in sight - but what you do get is a bowl of crumbed mielie pap (maize porridge) and a jug of sour milk. The combination of the two apparently creates a new status of salad.

5. Samp and Beans

 Another staple for many South Africans is good old Samp and Beans. Translated, this is Maize and Beans. This is a dish without much flavour as it is basically just corn and beans cooked together until soft, that will normally will serve as the base ingredient of a meal supplemented with gravy or any meat in a sauce.

I have tasted many variations of this dish over the years and quite like the hearty fillingness of this meal - but it really does depend on who did the flavouring, as it can sometimesbe quite a bland affair.

6. Curry and Rice

This is true South African family food, but hold on - is this not like Indian? Well, yes it is, but since the days of massive immigration of Indians to South Africa (as cheap labour after slavery was abolished), this dish has made some changes into a true South African staple, being prepared in most if not all households around the country.

Don’t expect too much variation or diversity of this dish as it will generally be meat (beef, lamb or chicken) and potatoes in a nice yellow curry sauce - with rice of course. The curries from Durban are most famous as this city has the most Indians in the world outside of India, and the types of spices used are hugely varied and can end up in different kinds of a good curry such as the Bunny Chow (half a loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with curry) or the Roti (curry rolled up in a flat bread called roti). This dish goes well with beer, by the way, to extinguish the burn and keep the temperature in your mouth down.

7. Bobotie

This mystery dish seems to be something pretty old-school and has evaded me for 12 years now. I have never eaten Bobotie at anyone’s house except for at funerals and it seems that some foreigners have eaten this dish as a true South African dish more times overseas than ever in South Africa.

It’s a dish that is thought to have originated in South East Asia (previously known as Dutch East India), and was introduced into South Africa by slaves brought over from there. In later years the former slaves formed the Cape Malay community. This minced meat dish with an egg custard topping is delicious and definitely something to try when you come across it.

8. Potjiekos

The word potjie (pronounced “poi-kie”) implies the use of a big cast iron kettle or cauldron - also seen in numerous cartoons and witch movies to cook unwanted visitors! The cast iron kettle is put on coals to slowly simmer and bubble for hours, creating a stew ("pot food") with as many possible variations as fish in the sea.

Most South African have their own pot and a secret recipe to go with it. I have seen half-bottles of wine, coke (yes, the cold drink) or cans of beers disappear into them. I have eaten them with pasta and chicken as well as with oxtail and prunes. Most will have meat as the main ingredient and then layered vegetables such as potato, sweet potato, green beans, butternut and other varieties. It is really up to the chef to give it his or her own twist. The common factor, however ,is that the potjie is more of a way of cooking than the actual dish itself.

The list can go on for a bit with Smoked Snoek (smoked fish), Koeksisters (doughnut shaped into a braid and soaked in syrup), Vetkoek and Mince (fried dough with filling of minced meat), Afval Kerrie (curry made with offal) and many other flavoursome dishes that are known to all South Africans and eaten with gusto and pleasure.

When you are coming to South Africa, I suggest you try some of these wonderful varieties of food, and experience the joy of food with your newly-made friends first hand. Be open to new things, and at least try some out before you decline - as this is your opportunity to learn something new about food and culture!

See you in Africa.



Founder of Khaya


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