Food has the power to take you places. The warm waft of cumin can transport you to the streets of Lebanon where falafels are stuffed into warm pitas, just as quickly as the crunch of a coriander seed on a dried piece of biltong lands you in the Karoo, mid-winter. In South Africa, we have no shortage of options when it comes to the flavours of the world.
Prominent cultural influences are prevalent across the various provinces. In Mpumalanga along the northeast coast, for example, you’ll find strong flavours of Portuguese or Indian cuisine thanks to the proximity of Mozambique and the colonial history of Durban, respectively. In the Western Cape, again, a myriad of different micro-cuisines thrive, telling a tale of the Cape’s rich cultural diversity.
Here’s a list of some of our favourite cuisines and where to enjoy them in SA.
South Africans adore Argentinian food because of our two countries’ shared obsession with good meat cooked over the coals. If you’re a classic South African looking to colour outside the lines of your culinary comfort zone, Argentina will serve you well. Try empanadas, the iconic bite-sized Argentinian pastries, before ordering classic Argentinian asado.
Che Argentine Grill (Parkwood)
Try their parrillada para compartir platter to share. It’s stacked with all the classics like asado, arañita, chorizo, pecho de cerdo and pollo deshuesado.
Try their churros with tres leche sauce and pecan purée.
We will forever love China for bringing us the fried plates of the deep east. Whether it’s egg fried rice, stir-fry noodles or deep-fried tempura morsels that go “crunch” when you sink your teeth into them … mmm. Thankfully, the cuisine’s appreciation has increased throughout South Africa and we’re starting to see more regional nuances too. From the hot pots of Chengdu to the baozi of Fujian, SA has it all.
The Orient Authentic Chinese Food (Richmond Hill Street)
Chef Julius Liu from Chengdu in China serves the most authentic and delicious hot pot experience in his ode-to-home eatery in Gqeberha. This hands-on experience involves cooking your own elements in a duo of traditional broths.
Bao Down (Green Point)
Nothing beats the pulled jackfruit vegan bao from Bao Down … perhaps only their pork belly version.
South Africans and Germans get along swiftly over our mutual pronunciation of the letter “G” and shared liking for big food and big beers. Prost!
Roter Hahn Bierstube und Deli (Clarens)
Their cheese fondue with raclette and gruyère cheese is a must, washed down with authentic German Erdinger draught on tap, of course.
Sepp’s German Stall (Root 44 Market)
Try the scrumptious Eisbein burger – slow-cooked, prize pork knuckle that’s pulled from the bone and served in a tender bun with sweet fried onions, crispy crackling and a smudge of bitter mustard. Founder-owner Sepp Krompass was born and bred – and trained as a chef – in Munich, before coming to SA in the early 1970s.
The darling of the Mediterranean: gorgeous Greece. This goddess of flavour is a celebration of the simplest, age-old ingredients including wheat, olive oil, wine and all things divine. South Africans love Greek food because of how well our iconic Karoo lamb compliments the traditional dishes. Thankfully, we’ve come to love some of their other specialities too.
The Big Time Taverna (St Francis Bay)
Authentic as they come with the best hummus and lamb you can have in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Fat Greek (Kimberley)
Whatever you do, don’t leave without trying their famed baklava with ice cream.
The Greek Kouzina (Mbombela)
These guys have found the sweet spot for marrying South African lamb with Greek recipes and the combo is legendary. Try their lamb chops with chilli, feta and mint, and you’ll never be the same again.
Indian food shouldn’t actually be clumped together as a national cuisine, but rather according to the various and vastly different regional cuisines native to this colourful subcontinent. For this segment, we’ve chosen to focus on its unofficial regional territory right here in South Africa to bring you our favourite spots to enjoy curry like a true Mzansi local.
Gounden’s Restaurant & Take Away (Glenwood)
You haven’t lived until you’ve had their mutton curry bunny.
Masala Box (Walmer)
Owner and cook Anusha Ranchhod offers the most flavourful and authentic takeaway meals and her vegetarian dishes – an ode to her home state of Gujarati. Exotic veggies such as tindora (ivy gourd) and okra often feature, stirred up in the shop kitchen with the perfect blend of spices from the adjoining spice store.
The Spice Emporium & Snack Bar (Monty Naicker Road)
The Harie family owns this national treasure, which has gone from strength to strength over the last 33 years. It’s a spice shop, first and foremost, but they’ve recently opened the Snack Bar inside the shop, offering Indian street food, aka “chaat”.
Italian food needs no introduction and there are many good Italian flagbearers in SA. But what makes a great Italian meal? Homemade pasta, for starters. Also authentic Neapolitan pizza with a secret family recipe sauce, fior de latte and lashings of Parmigiano Reggiano. Not much else … perhaps a picking of basil to finish it off and a splash of balsamico for serving. And, of course, let’s not forget the “al forno”. The greatest Italian dishes gain their full flavour in a hell-fury furnace fired by wood.
Nolio Italian Bistro (Corner of Stanley and Moffat Street)
Perhaps the best true Neapolitan pizza you can have in South Africa. The whole baked line fish al fornois an experience too, if available. Go on a Sunday when the entire street is a vibe with live music and cocktails.
They’ve recently opened an Italian deli – Lello’s – in De Waterkant too.
Italian nights at The Bakery (Klapmuts)
A farm-to-table family-style experience set in Babylonstoren’s more laidback bakery. The Italian nights happen only on Monday and Friday nights. The menu starts with an abundant grazing board before a bowl of pasta, followed by the wood-fired pizza, which is served by the slice, fresh from the oven.
From the whimsical land that brought us sushi comes a wealth of other dishes that deserve equal praise. Thankfully, moreish Japanese ramen bowls are rising stars in South Africa and we predict a particularly steamy winter ahead.
A veteran in the Japanese food scene in South Africa, Daruma was the first authentic Japanese restaurant in Africa, having opened in 1986. They’re famous for the Japanese style of teppanyaki, where guests get to see how food is grilled on the flat grill surface in front of them.
Izakaya Arata (Port Elizabeth Central)
Chef Arata Koga lives above his beloved Japanese eatery in the heart of Gqeberha, serving loyal patrons the best Japanese shiitake tempura and ramen pork chashu, this side of the Pacific. When there’s fresh fish, it’s served sashimi- style with a simple dressing of soy sauce.
Tacos. Need we say more!? Although novels can be – and have been – written over humankind’s universal love for tacos, we are thankful for more than just those corny crunch bombs. This spicy hotspot has also given us burritos, tamales, nachos, quesadillas and, of course, tequila, for which we are truly thankful and then also truly sorry …
Picasso’s Mexican Taqueria (White River)
Since opening in 2014, Picasso’s has become the go-to for fine Mexican grub such as their crunchy tacos, chimichangas, fajitas, burritos and quesadillas.
Mamacitas (Richmond Hill St)
Try their frozen CoronaRitas on a hot summer’s day.
Flavours of Portugal are prevalent in SA thanks to the influence of Vasco da Gama and his fellow Portuguese explorers. These ships carried a new wealth of spices to SA’s shores to sprinkle over flame-grilled chicken and baste freshly caught seafood. We haven’t looked back since.
Something’s Cooking By J’Something (Menlyn)
SA musician Joao da Fonseca, aka J’Something, has an incredible passion for his Portuguese heritage and this shines through at Something’s Cooking, where classically scrumptious Portuguese street food gets a little royal treatment. Try the chicken wings.
Gosto Portuguese Restaurant (Clarens)
Who knew the best prawns in SA could be found in Clarens in the Free State – better try it to believe it!
Of all the South Eastern cuisine nuances that stretch eastwards, Vietnamese cuisine’s claim to fame is achieving the perfect balance in every bite. Even in their humble street food sandwich bánh mì, expect to find something sweet, something savoury, something spicy and something fatty – all working together in a symphony of different and complementing textures. Vietnamese cuisine is a celebration of simple, fresh cooking and we could all use more of that! The Vietnamese also enjoy drinking beer with ice … the perfect idea for when the next heatwave strikes. No judgies.
Yen’s Vietnamese Street Food (De Waterkant)
The bánh mì from Yen’s is just as good as you’ll find on the streets of Hoi An in central Vietnam. It’s crammed with fresh and pickled veggies, a thick smear of liver paté and fatty pork belly all folded together in a fresh French baguette. Heaven is real.
ëlgr Restaurant (Gardens)
Banchan Korean Restaurant (Parkmore)
Little Addis Cafe (Milpark)
Lebanese Bakery (Claremont
Bierfassl Restaurant and Pub (Nottingham Road)
What other restaurants would you recommend for diners with an adventurous palate?