With influences from around the world, South African food is a rich combination of eastern spices with local flavours that few have truly perfected. Cape Town has an obsession with food and receives frequent awards as a foodie hotspot. There is no way to make an exhaustive list of South Africa’s favourite foods, but this is a good place to start. And remember, come hungry!
Koesisters, koeksisters and vetkoek
All three of these delicious South African treats are made with fried dough, but they are three quite different things.
Koeksisters and koesisters way have similar names, but they’re not the same thing. Koeksisters have their origins in Dutch heritgae and Afrikaans culture. They’re sickly sweet and made from braided dough soaked in sticky syrup. They have a crunchy texture and golden colour.
Koesisters are the Malay-style answer to this sweet treat. They’re bigger and have a soft, bread-like texture. They’re doused in syrup on the outside and rolled in desicated coconut. They’re also spiced with ginger, cinnamon, naartjie (a local type of citrus) zest, and aniseed.
Vetkoek, on the other hand, is a soft and doughy deep-fried bun. It’s either eaten with jam or as a savoury dish with curried mince.
Where to find it:
Koesisters: Bibis Kitchen in Wynberg, Wembley’s Roadhouse in Athlone, Bo-Kaap Kombuis in the Bo-Kaap, Miriam’s Kitchen in the CBD. Some supermarkets in the city centre also have them.
Koeksister: Many supermarkets will have them, or you can find them at Deeghuys in Bellville.
Vetkoek: Vetkoek Paleis Brackenfell, Masa Buca in Observatory, and many local corner stores.
This much-loved South African favourite was invented right here in Cape Town, with distinctive Malay flavours. It is a delicious, mild curried mince dish, topped with a thin layer of baked savoury custard. Traditionally, it also contains sultanas and almonds, and the absence or presence of these ingredients is a contentious topic! The dish is usually served with yellow curry rice and Chutney. For a true SA flavour, think Mrs Ball’s chutney that started as a home industry in 1918 and at one stage was being made in the backyard of Mrs Ball’s home in Cape Town. It is now an International brand—but it belongs to us.
We know what you’re thinking. Don’t worry—despite the name there is no rabbit in this yummy dish. First, you take a half-loaf of fresh, soft, white bread, then you hollow out the inside, and finally you fill the hollow with a tasty curry. It’s served with some of the hollowed-out bread for dipping, and is made to be devoured with your hands. If it’s not messy, you’re not doing it right. This cult-classic dish was made famous in Durban, but you can find it all over Cape Town too.
Shisa nyama (braai meat)
If there’s one thing that really unites South Africans of all backgrounds, it’s the sheer pleasure they derive from standing around a fire cooking. On Sundays in summer, every suburb is filled with the mouthwatering aroma of seasoned meat sizzling on the braai. Neighbours and friends gather to enjoy the outdoors, with a cold drink in hand, while chops, chicken, boerewors (a delicious spiced sausage, and another local favourite!) grill over hot coals. The more ambitious braaiers will bake roosterkoek (dough, usually with butter, herbs, or cheese, baked over the fire), but the simpler braaibroodjies are popular too (like a grilled cheese but cooked, of course, on a fire). Then there are the sides… bean salads, pickled beetroot, potato salad, and all sorts. It’s a feast, but it’s not just about the food. It’s about the sense of community, and the ice cold beers, and the company.
Melkterk (Milk tart)
This dessert is probably best described as the Afrikaans answer to crème brûlée—but it has no sugary topping and is probably even more delicious. It has a thin pastry crust and a silky, creamy milk-based filling. The top is usually dusted with cinnamon, completing the veritable symphony of sweet and delicate flavour.
Where to find it: Most bakeries and supermarkets have it in stock, but Table Mountain Café is rumoured to make some of the best in Cape Town. If summiting a mountain for your fix is too much, try Deeghuys in Bellville or Wembley Bakery in Athlone.
What the Bunny Chow is to Durban, the Gatsby is to Cape Town. It’s a quintessentially Cape Town dish, and if a local confesses to not having tried one, you’ll hear audible gasps. The dish started as a way to use up leftovers (like many excellent dishes—rumour has it that’s how paella, fried rice, and pizza came to be). It consists of a long bread roll (like a baguette) stuffed with any number of ingredients, usually including several kinds of meat and hot chips. The Masala Steak Gatsby is a favourite: lettuce topped with tender, juicy steak and spiced chips, doused with barbeque. One Gatsby can feed at least four hungry people, so it’s made for sharing.
Pap or mieliepap is an African staple of cooked maize meal that accompanies stews, curries or braai meat with a good serving of sauce. It comes mostly in two varieties: Thick and solid Putu pap or light and crumbly krummelpap. It’s very similar to polenta, and is usually eaten with your hands and used to mop up something saucy and delicious, from a tomato based salsa to hearty meat stew.
Fish ‘n chips
This dish owes its existence to a convergence of factors: a thriving coastline full of fish, bustling harbours, and the British influence of the colonial era. Fish ‘n chips is a Cape Town staple. It’s usually crispily fried hake served with slaptjips (soft fries) drenched in vinegar, with a side portion of tartar sauce. Almost everyone has their own favourite place to get this dish, so you might have to try a few!
Where to find it: It’s not hard to find, but if you want to find the best, read our article on the best fish and chips in Cape Town.
Cape Malay Curry
Cape Malay curries (or “kerries”) take your senses on vacation to the spice markets of the east, while your heart remains in Cape Town. Colourful spices give these curries their distinctive taste and they make excellent comfort food served on yellow rice with a mix of sambals, atjars, and sliced banana. While beef, lamb, and chicken are the easiest to find, the fish curry is the one you’ll want on the West Coast.
South Africans are seriously proud of rooibos, and so we should be! As part of the fynbos family, it’s indigenous and has a list of health benefits longer than your arm. It contains antioxidants, is naturally caffeine- and sugar-free and it tastes delicious without any additives (although some do like a little honey, milk, or sugar with their cuppa). We love it so much we use it in baking, add it to our gin and ice cream and even make red cappuccinos and lattes with it! The rest of the world is catching on with our main exports going to Germany, The Netherlands, Japan, the UK and the US.
Where to find it: Buy the teabags at any grocery store, or order a pot from almost any restaurant.
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