Cape of feasts
Indigenous grills, Indian spices and Dutch traditions give South African cuisine its diverse flavours
From the Dutch-influenced, meaty excesses of a typical Afrikaner braai grill-a-thon to the ingenious and decidedly Indian bunny chow—the cuisine of South Africa reflects the country’s Rainbow Nation epithet.
Loathe to call itself a barbecue (which is a mere condiment in South Africa), a traditional braai is a garden grill that’s hosted by almost every family in the country come summer. Adapted by the former Dutch colonialists, the Afrikaners, from the ancient technique of grilling and roasting freshly hunted meat by the country’s indigenous Khoisan people, a braai is all about generously cut beef steaks basted with fruity monkey gland sauce along with pork ribs, lamb chops and sausages, among other carnivorous offerings.
With its own set of rules, a braai might seem like an old-fashioned ritual where the grilling of meats on the braai (as the actual coal-lit grill is called) is the domain of the man of the house, while the women take care of the side dishes and desserts. And not to mention anathema for most vegetarians, with the odd salad and dainty cheese-tomato-onion grilled sandwiches called braaibroodjie thrown in as a sort of feeble “peace offering".
Known multifariously as pap, phutu or mieliepap, and providing the roughage to the braai spread, pap is a hearty, traditional African porridge-meets-polenta-like dish. Made from coarse corn meal boiled in hot water with butter and salt, it is often served with a sweetish, relish-like sauce called chakalaka made with tomato and onion, with bacon, cheese and corn kernels added for heft. In some parts of South Africa, particularly among the Sotho-Tswana people, it is simply known as ting and their version is a tangy sorghum-based pap which is fermented for two days before serving.
No braai can ever be complete without a couple of lamb sosaties thrown on to the grill. Similar to kebabs, sosaties are cubes of meat on tiny wooden skewers alternated by a dried apricot and a strip of bacon sprinkled with curry powder and turmeric, giving them a nice Indian zing.
Speaking of India, Durban in South Africa’s Eastern KwaZulu-Natal province is not just home to the country’s largest number of people of Indian origin, but also to the fiendishly popular dish, bunny chow. An ingenious 19th century invention of the indentured Indian sugarcane field workers, who found a canny way of carrying their lunch curries to work in hollowed-out loaves of breads without spilling them, bunny chow today sees many iterations, with unctuous curries of meat, chicken, beans and vegetables all ensconced in fluffy loaves of white bread. And it is this quarter loaf of bread that has also resulted in bunny chow’s more colloquial moniker of kota (quarter), as Durbanites call their favourite any-time snack.
Also doing well to reference South Africa’s Indian connection is the roasted coriander, black pepper, nutmeg and cloves spice blend that goes into the coiled beef-lamb-pork boerewors sausages that have originated from the traditional (and less spicy) Dutch verse worst sausages.
Another immigrant group that has greatly influenced the South African palate are the Cape Malay people of Cape Town who came from Indonesia along with the Dutch East India Company. With its fluffy, savoury egg custard top and its spiced minced lamb base, the Cape Malay baked dish bobotie is based on the traditional Indonesian bobotok, which is a steamed dish of minced fish and coconut milk.
A delicious relic of South Africa’s Cape Dutch lineage from the country’s Western Cape region, malva pudding with its gooey centre is always drenched in vanilla custard and served warm. Another dessert favourite is the fried doughnut-like twisted Afrikaner-Cape Malay pastry called koeksisters. A great way to punctuate a typically South African feast that’s truly from here, there and everywhere.