Foodies are constantly looking for the next big thing. A few years ago it was all about North African cuisine, and we went mad buying ceramic tagines, dates and couscous. Then we went Japanese crazy, with sales of miso and sushi rice going through the roof. You’d be forgiven for thinking that there aren’t many undiscovered cuisines left, but many experts seem to think that the next big thing is South African food. The UK is home to many South African expats, but until very recently the availability of South African food has been limited to a few speciality delicatessens and biltong distributors in the south of England. All indications are that this is about to change, so what is South African food all about?
It is very hard to define traditional South African cookery as it draws on so many different traditions. As well as the traditional recipes cooked by the indigenous African people, immigrants from Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, India and Indonesia all brought their traditional recipes to South Africa, resulting in a huge blend of different cooking styles and dishes. There is a large amount of crossover between cultures and traditions, so it is very hard to define the archetypal South African dish.
Curry and Spice
South Africans love their food hot and spicy. There is a lot of Indian influence in today’s food, and curries are widely eaten, with varying degrees of intensity. As well as Indian style curries, hot and spicy food was brought to South Africa with the Dutch East India Company’s slave labour from Indonesia and Malaysia, and their nutmeg and chillies. Although Portugal lays claim to the hot piri piri sauce used on chicken and fish, it has caught on in South Africa more than anywhere else because of their love of everything hot and spicy. One of the most famous sorts of curries is called Bunny Chow and originated in Durban. The curry is sold in a hollowed out loaf of bread, and is mostly made using mutton or chicken. It is sold as a fast food takeaway dish and is popular with both locals and visitors alike.
The main claimant for the title of “national dish” is probably bobotie. The dish is thought to have originated with the Cape Malay community and is spiced minced beef baked with an egg topping. A bobotie recipe varies from cook to cook, but often contains sultanas, raisins, ginger, lemon and curry powder. Many of these ingredients add a sweet touch to an otherwise savoury dish, and although it’s not to everyone’s taste, bobotie is found on restaurant menus throughout South Africa.
South Africa’s warm and sunny climate lends itself perfectly to barbecuing, so it’s hardly surprising that this is one of the most popular ways to eat. Meat is the centerpiece of most barbecues, and although many families stick to the burgers and sausages as we do here in the UK, it’s not uncommon to see animals such as ostrich or goat on the barbecue too.
Canny biltong distributor companies here in the UK have cottoned on to the fact many South Africans miss this iconic snack, which is similar to American beef jerky. Biltong is spiced and then dried, and can be made from beef or venison. Biltong is eaten as a snack at any time of the day, and the fact that it is small and easily portable means that it was one of the easiest South African foods to introduce to the UK. Biltong distributor firms started off catering to the expat community, but with all great snack foods, biltong is now enjoyed by everyone, whether or not they have South African links.
Freelance writer and ardent foodie Jasmin Blunt longs to travel to Africa or find a biltong distributor to sample the very best of South African cuisine for herself.