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21 iconic South African foods – the ultimate guide for visitors

Don’t listen to these guys at Buzzfeed; they’re doing it wrong. To truly enjoy South African food, you have to actually be in South Africa. It’s all about shared history, your surroundings, and the people with whom you’ve gathered to break (braai)bread. We list the essential food that all visitors – and residents – should taste when on our gorgeous shores.

Amagwinya / vetkoek

It’s a ball of dough; it’s fried; it’s filled. Vetkoek really lives up to its name, meaning ‘fat cake’. Favourite fillings include spiced mince; apricot jam and grated cheese; or polony. Watch how to make it – and learn some new Zulu and Setswana food words while you’re at it.

Biltong

You can buy these strips of umami-rich dried and spiced meat – usually beef, kudu or ostrich – at almost any supermarket or corner café. Biltong is best enjoyed with a beer while watching sport, but if you’re in the winelands and want a more elegant introduction, try the warm prawn and cured snoek terrine at Helena’s in Stellenbosch, which comes rolled in wild herbs and kudu biltong dust, and served with tangy parsley purée.

Bobotie

This traditional Cape Malay dish comprises gently spiced minced lamb or beef topped with an egg-and-milk layer and browned in the oven. Some recipes call for the addition of apple, raisins or apricot jam, whose sweetness works well with the curry powder and turmeric that lend the dish its golden colour. Order the bobotie with coconut cream and almonds (on the specials menu every few weeks) at Pajamas and Jam Eatery in Strand, outside the Mother City.

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Boerewors

This traditional thick farmer’s sausage is a staple at braais and hangover breakfasts. (It’s great on a soft roll with fried onion and lashings of sauce, too.) Spiced predominantly with coriander and containing a mixture of beef and pork, the sausage comes in a big coil, which sizzles pleasantly when you turn it over with tongs on the braai.  If you’re in Gauteng, order boerewors at The Grillhouse in Rosebank or at Fireside Bistro in Norwood, or try a gourmet boerewors roll topped with grilled onions and served with picalili, homemade ketchup and onion rings on the side at Life Grand Café at Waterfall.

A gourmet boerewors with grilled onions and served with picalili, homemade ketchup and onion rings. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

A gourmet boerewors with grilled onions and served with picalili, homemade ketchup and onion rings at Life Grand Cafe. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

Braaivleis / shisa nyama

This is the quintessential South African way of eating, where friends gather sociably around an open fire, and cooking is done over the coals. Trends analyst and lifestyle writer Sandiso Ngubane agrees: “Give me a nice juicy boerewors and tender lamb chops straight off the braai, pap and some chilli chakalaka and you have my heart!” For food writer Kate Liquorish, creator of the Kitchen Hacks video series, the most iconic South African dishes all relate back to the incredible meat we have in South Africa. “But, more important for me than the dishes themselves, is the pairing of these dishes with authentic experiences in authentic surroundings: boerwors rolls at the rugby or around a braai… and real shisa nyama outside a crowded shebeen or in the heart of Soweto. That, for me, is where the real flavour lies.” If you can’t wangle an invitation to the house of a local, make a trip for shisa nyama to Chaf-Pozi in Soweto or order the flame-grilled brisket with pap and chakalaka at The Bannister in Braamfontein. Alternatively, sign up for a beef appreciation class at The Local Grill in Parktown North.

Braai chops and sides

Shisa nyama at Chaf Pozi. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

Braaibroodjies

These grilled sandwiches are ever-present at many home braais. You can put anything between two slices of bread, pop it on the grill, and call it a braaibroodjie, but they usually contain some combo of cheese, onion and tomato. If you’re feeding a large group, you can make a braai pie with sheets of dough instead of bread. If you’re out and about in Pretoria, order the fancy brie braaibroodjies oozing with caramelised onion at Afro-boer in Pretoria.

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Bredie

Commonly made with lamb and waterblommetjies (an edible flower found in our dams and marshes) or beef and tomato, bredie is a slow-cooked comforting stew. For chef and blogger Jody Theodore, cabbage bredie was a favourite of his childhood. “Thinking back, I’m hit by flashbacks of the smell of the braising technique my mom used to get a good dark caramel colour to the cabbage, and the sizzling sound of the meat being sealed. Once the sizzling becomes a gentle simmer and the chemistry happens, you’re spoilt with this beautiful aroma.” He recommends serving it with white rice and some pickled beetroot – the combination of champions.

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Bunny chow

Originally conceived as a travelling lunch in KwaZulu-Natal, a bunny chow is a hollowed out loaf of white ‘government’ bread filled with curry. Durban is the place to try it; Capsicum does a legendary bunny, but it may be more appropriate to order it at a tiny hole-in-the-wall streetside café. If you’re farther north, in Joburg, try the lamb bunny chow at  in Braamfontein or chicken bunny chow at Foundry in Parktown-North.

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Don Pedro

We’ve traced the origins of this after-dinner boozy milkshake to the 1970s, but most places will be able to make you one should you ask for it. Sip on the signature don pedro at Dale’s Black Angus in Milnerton, or if you’re up-country, at The Dullstroom Inn in the fly-fishing capital of Dullstroom.

Denningvleis

This traditional Cape Malay dish, reportedly one of the oldest South African recipes, is a sweet-and-sour slow-cooked stew flavoured with spices and tamarind. It’s on the menu, amongst many other traditional items, at Bo-Kaap Kombuis in Cape Town.

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Gatsby

This giant filled roll is another street-food masterpiece. Editor of Gourmet Bernadette Le Roux says, “When it comes to iconic SA food, the gatsby immediately springs to mind. This legendary stacked foot-long sandwich is meant for sharing and is filled to bursting with slap chips (chunky, soft fries usually doused in vinegar), masala steak, egg, Russian sausage and sometimes polony or a vienna accompanied by atchar or peri peri. It originated in the Cape Flats in the 1970s as an economical meal. Not the kind of food you’re likely to eat on a daily basis, but you haven’t been to the Mother City if you’ve never tried a gatsby!” Try a legendary gatsby – sauce running down your arms and hot chips falling in your lap – at Mariam’s Kitchen in Cape Town.

Koe(k)sisters

Depending on where you are in the country, these sweets either take the form of braided dough that’s deep fried and soaked in syrup (koeksisters, of Afrikaans heritage) or balls of spiced dough rolled in coconut (koesisters, of Cape Malay heritage). Both are delicious.

Malva pudding

Many citizens will tell you their granny makes this simple baked pudding with toffee sauce best, but you can order exemplary versions at Il Giardino Degli Ulivi in Milpark and 33 High Street in Modderfontein, Johannesburg. Else try it at Reuben’s in Franschhoek.

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Milktart

Pale, smooth, and topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon, milktart is a soothing tea-time treat in some SA cultures. Family recipes go back hundreds of years, but you will be in safe hands ordering it at D6 District Six Eatery in Emmarentia, Johannesburg. You could also try a milktart pancake at Betty Blue Bistro in Hermanus.

Mogodu with ting

Enjoyed everywhere across the globe from France to China, stewed tripe is also a beloved comfort food on the southern tip of Africa. Chef, blogger and entrepreneur Lesego Semenya says mogodu with ting is the one iconic dish that he will always look back on and cherish. “Mogodu is tripe, slow cooked for hours until soft; ting is a stiff porridge made from fermented mabele/sorghum. Mabele is also very versatile and can be played around with like quinoa and arborio rice.” Order traditional tripe at D6 District Six Eatery in Emmarentia, Johannesburg.

Pap en sous

Made from coarse ground maize cooked with water, pap is a staple for many South Africans. You can have it quite fluid as a porridge, or more dry, balled up and dipped it in sous (tomato and onion sauce), chakalaka (spicy chunky fruity salsa) or your meaty stew to make it go further. It’s very much a home dish, but you can try pap with flame-grilled brisket and chakalaka it at The Bannister Hotel Bar and Restaurant in Braamfontein, or as a side with your meaty main at The Grillhouse in Sandton and Rosebank, or the The Local Grill in Parktown North. In a more modern take, Afro-boer in The Willows serves pap in wedges with fried eggs and boerewors.

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Peppermint crisp tart

Not the most stylish dessert but nevertheless popular on dinner tables, this no-cook pudding sports layers of biscuits, whipped cream, out-the-tin caramel and Peppermint Crisp chocolate bars. Try the Peppermint Crisp sundae at Thunder Gun Steakhouse in Northcliff.

Smiley

This street-food treat of a sheep’s head, named for its widely grimacing mouth, is popular for its tasty tenderness. Ashraf Booley, digital content producer for Woolworths TASTE, quips, “Smiley shouldn’t be amiss on this list; head-to-tail eating is trending, after all!”

Snoek

A tasty species of mackerel that populates the seas around South Africa, snoek can be tricky to eat due to all its fine bones, but the flavour is your reward. Your first choice for snoek should be in rustic battered fish and chips at Kalky’s in Kalk Bay (an institution) or in spring rolls or a quiche at Gäbrielskloof between Botrivier and Caledon in the Overberg.

Battered fish and chips at Kalky’s. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

Battered fish and chips at Kalky’s. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

Umngqusho

This simple, starchy dish pairs samp (unhusked maize) with beans to make a filling and nutritious side dish, which is said to be one of the favourites of Nelson Mandela himself. It’s great with any slow-cooked stews.

Umphokoqo

Zodwa Kumalo-Valentine, writer and digital director of Livity Africa, says this dish of pap with fermented milk is one her favourite foods from childhood. “I’ve always enjoyed the complementary combination of the crumbled salty pap and creamy-sour milkiness of amas’. My mother made (and still) makes it best. I’ve never tried to make it myself for fear of corrupting the memory of that sweet summer dish of my youth.”

Want to delve deeper into South African food? Read our article on SA’s 25 most nostalgic foods.

Please share your favourite local treats with us in the comments.

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