History of South African Cuisine

South African Cuisine

The history of South African cuisine and the development of South African culinary tradition are as diverse as the peoples who make up the population of South Africa, a potpourri of Eastern and Western foods and flavours closely linked to the history of the sub-continent. To fully appreciate the multi-cultural aspect of South Africa's gastronomy, it is necessary to understand its historic evolution.

Kaiings - crackling made from sheep-tail fat 

Up until the influx of European explorers to South Africa over 500 hundred years ago, the Strandlopers dined on mussels, perlemoen, crayfish, seals, roots, fruits and edible seaweed. The Khoi kept sheep and cattle and feasted on “kaiings” (crackling made from sheep-tail fat). The Bushmen (San) were hunters who needed neither seafood nor domesticated animals when game was abundant, which it was in the 17th century, even in the Cape. Along with buck, elephant or hippo meat, there was veldkos (field food), mustard leaves, surings, veldkool (field cabbage), and waterblommetjies, found in dams and vleis in the Boland beyond Cape Town.

Early African tribes planted millet and sorghum, and indeed, they still do. Millet makes quite a nice traditional beer, as does amabele, which can also be used for an excellent pap. Africans from early times also raised cattle, but very few of the beasts ended up on the open wood fires of the braai. There was game to hunt and insects to gather – termites, locusts, and especially mashonzha. Dried, then fried, grilled, or cooked up in a stew, they were considered a delicacy in the northern part of South Africa, among the Venda, Tsonga and Pedi people, as well as in Botswana and Zimbabwe – and still are, served up as hors d’oeuvres at restaurants and pubs in the city. In the north, the caterpillars and other foods are cooked in peanut sauce, further south, it’s onions, tomatoes and a touch of chilli.

Bartholomeu Dias Route to India 

In the mid-1400’s, Bartholomeu Dias became the first European explorer to discover the southern tip of continental Africa. In so doing, he discovered a water route from his native country of Portugal to the Far East. This gateway between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans activated trading between Europe, India, and the Spice Islands, initially by Vasco da Gama in 1497, then later by the Dutch East India Company.

In 1652 the Dutch East India Company established a revictualling station at the Cape of Good Hope, a headland in the southwestern part of South Africa to provide fresh produce for its merchantmen plying the eastern trade routes. The Dutch brought with them dishes and customs that prevail to this day – cooked vegetables served with butter and nutmeg, pancakes, waffles, biscuits. The settlers at the Cape also made use of the trade with the East to obtain spices and other ingredients not available here.

The Company discovered it was easier to bring in thousands of slaves from Java to work in the fields than to keep trying to entrap the local people, mostly Khoi and San, who seemed singularly unimpressed with the Dutch and their ways. The Malay slaves brought their cuisine, perhaps the best-known of all South African cooking styles. Most Cape homes employed Malay cooks who adapted traditional Eastern recipes using local ingredients and in the process developed those aspects of South African cooking which can truly be said to be unique – the combination of sweet and spicy in meat and fish dishes, the addition of appetising side dishes and accompaniments like sambals and chutneys.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the boundaries of the colony were being extended by settlers like the French Huguenots, who changed the landscape in wonderful ways with the vines they imported. They soon discovered a need for men and women to work in their vineyards, and turned to the Malay slaves, and the few Khoi and San they could lure into employment.

During this century and the next, there was a good deal of territorial expansion and settlers were making their homes far beyond the boundaries of civilization. Lacking the amenities of town life, these early settlers perfected cooking over the coals and in outdoor ovens, producing marvelously tasty and nutritious meat dishes, stews and breads from home-grown produce, the wealth of veld (field) plants and abundant game.

When the Cape became British in the nineteenth century, British immigrants settled the eastern part of the colony. They and other settlers during this century – German and Portuguese among them – introduced their own traditional dishes and cooking methods.

Early Durban South Africa
Early Durban South Africa

Some two centuries after the first Malay slaves landed in the Cape, a boatload of indentured labourers arrived in Durban to work in the sugar cane fields. Others followed – both Hindu and Muslim, from all over India – and when their ten-year contracts were over, they stayed. Clearly there was a market here, merchants arrived from Gujerat and the north to service it and, like the labourers, they stayed. Indian cookery grew so popular over the decades that followed that Zulus in KwaZulu-Natal adopted curries as their own, although they left out the ginger. The variety of curries, atjars, samoosas, and breyani are a delight to the South African palate, and the popularity of tandoori restaurants in the last 20 years has enhanced a popular cuisine. Cape Malay curries are not as hot as Indian curries.

From this variety of influences, traditional South African cooking evolved. Such a rich heritage is rightly cherished for itself.

Category: South African Cuisine

Sub Category: History