What do people eat in South Africa?
I came to study in South Africa, Education, Sociolinguistics and Ethnographic Research to be exact. After I got accepted into the program, my google searches involved, surfing South Africa, capoeira South Africa and food South Africa.
Firstly, I didn’t know anything about surfing–I grew up in Chicago. I spent summers visiting my Yiayia in Greece and went to university in Michigan the rest of the year where bodies of water were mostly frozen or used for summer water-skiing. I was pro at balancing on swimming pool floatation devices. I could also be found getting tan through Adriatic sea reflection on Grecian pebble shorelines. It was December in East Lansing. The type of cold that makes your hair grow back inside it’s follicle and remain ingrown until May. Gore-Tex isn’t just used on Patagonia slopes, it’s essential to wear while you walk to your 10:15 lecture.
Surfing South Africa to me meant warm sub-tropical weather and a romanticized idea of surfing. Instead of knowing what kinds of waves a surfer like me would surf, I thought the site with South African surf slang was more interesting. It was a foreign language. I had no clue or what jargon they were even referring to, so I changed my search terms. I thought-warm ocean, waves to learn surfing, a new university on the ocean for six months…get fit. After printing out recommended surf workouts, I quickly learned my shoulders were made for shoveling snow. My paddling could take me around a pond in Michigan, but I didn’t know ocean waves.
So I thought about capoeira.
I didn’t know much about capoeira except that my brother and friends had been going to classes in Chicago for years. The year before, I went to Rio de Janeiro. I loved to watch and sing in the rodas in Ilha Grande.
Back at MSU, My African Studies class was so broad the only hint of a food/cultural reference to South Africa was the professor’s cravings for Portuguese bakeries in Kwa-Zulu Natal. When I looked up capoeira, I found a student class, Capoeira Na Praia, at University of KwaZulu Natal. I was excited to play capoeira there since I wasn’t the surfer girl I thought I was. I was the girl who would most likely wear a brasilian bikini and chew sugarcane on the beach while collecting shells to make necklaces. At least I knew I would be getting in on the feijoada fundraising dinners with the capoeira club, but South African food–what is it? What else besides this Portuguese bakery is going to be in South Africa? What delicious foods are in South Africa?
Years later, I’m still learning the many tastes of South African food. I ended up marrying the surfer who taught me capoeira, who fed me Johnny’s Roti’s at 4am while I made brincadeiros in his mom’s Cypriot kitchen.
I didn’t know much about the food in South Africa when I arrived but I will share with you what I have learned along the way. There are so many foods that are worth celebrating. South African Flavour is unique and layered. The modest list below is just a few staples for any visitor to know and love.
Top ten foods to try:
- Curried sugar bean Bunny chow
It’s beyond what Panera bread company tried to do. Edible bread bowls at their best plus you could get a history lesson through every bite. Many generations of Indian labourers sat down and ate that very homemade meal at lunch break during the days of Ghandi’s presence in South Africa. This food tradition continues today and is found all over the country.
2. Johnny’s Sunrise Rotis/ Mariam’s Salomies
Roti’s in some provinces, salomies with puff pastry style wraps in the Western Cape. Whether it comes with mutton garam masala stew or corn, chips and cheese–order it and love it and ask your favourite local where to get the best.
3.Boerewors on a braai
It’s farmer’s beef sausage. You can get fancy with it and chow it with a roll, but it’s plain perfect off the BBQ, try it with a squeeze of lemon on top while it’s hot. Get some with cumin or fennel mixed in, or try an ostrich version for variety.
4. Masala steak Gatsby sandwich
Don’t try to finish is alone, this sandwich, like the Johnny’s Roti is large enough to carry in a stroller. I personally like the Masala steak but the Calamari and Chip Gatsby is scrumptious if you’re by the sea.
5. Sugarcane juice, litchis (lychee) and spicy pineapple
Freshly squeezed on Durban’s beachfront, sugarcane juice with lemon is the way lemonade should taste. Litchi’s (Lychee) hanging of the trees in December and spicy pineapple on kebab sticks at the beach bring your sunburn to a tickling heat.
6. Mealie bread (isinkwa sombila)
Help light the firewood, peel the mealies and get to work grinding them into a pulp to add to the flour. This traditional pot bread is worth working for.
7. Peri-Peri chicken or prawns
So I never found portuguese bakeries that my professor spoke about, but I did learn about Mozambiquean cuisine and African bird’s eye chilis (Peri-Peri or Piri-Piri) is added to heat every bite of your flavourful meal.
Wild Coast, KZN, Knysna, Namibian–makes me want to have a mermaid’s lunch everyday and boost my zinc levels.
9. Samp and Beans (istambu)
A staple and standard that ClifBars should be made of. Protein and Carbs at their best.
10. Malva pudding
The toffee sticky pudding on most menus at unpretentious South Africa food dives. With custard or ice cream, or even the store bought Woolworth’s version makes you go ‘mmmmmmmmmmm.’
There are so many more foods to rave about, but these staples are a must for first time South African food tasters. More lists to come . . .