The rainbow nation on a plate

With 11 official languages and plenty more spoken informally, South Africa has dozens of different cultures, each bringing its own flavours and cooking methods to the table, so to speak. Here are some of South Africa’s most significant cultures and their signature dishes:


As one of the largest of the South African cultures, the Xhosa cuisine is an important one in this country. Since they were once hunter-gatherers who survived off the land, their modern cuisine is still characterised by starch-based dishes with plenty of meat, fortified by vegetables. Maize is a very important ingredient, and forms the base of most Xhosa dishes. It can be enjoyed as a cold breakfast with sour milk and sugar, or served hot and thick with meats and vegetables. When mixed with animal fat and sugar beans, it is known as the famous umngqusho. Leafy green vegetables are common, as are filling options like potatoes and pumpkin.


The Zulu folk’s diet is made up mostly of grains, vegetables and meat. In the rural areas, these are produced by each household. Maize porridges are also very important for the Zulus; whether stiff or thin. In fact, they can even be consumed as a drink when diluted. Amazi is curdled milk, and is a common constituent of many Zulu meals. Tomatoes, onions, potatoes and pumpkin are popular, as are amandumbe (which resemble sweet potatoes). Meat is consumed as and when available, and the organs and cuts are distributed according to age and gender, with men getting the best parts.


The British colonialists brought with them many of the cooking methods and ingredients from Europe. However, when they settled in South Africa, they had to incorporate local cuisines, making use of what was available. They were somewhat limited as there were very limited facilities on the continent at that time. Some of the modern dishes that hail from the colonialists include the traditional Sunday Roast, shepherd’s pie, fish and chips and the irresistible English breakfasts.


Afrikaans cuisine comes from the Dutch and French settlers that originally came to South Africa as farmers. It is unique to this spectacular land. In the Afrikaans language, the characteristic cuisine is defined as “vleis, rys en aartappels”, which means “meat, rice and potatoes.” When these folk traversed the country with ox wagons, they relied on their drying techniques and preserves to ensure that they had food that would not go off in the heat. Dried, seasoned meat, including biltong and Droewors, remains very popular in South Africa today. In addition, homemade jams and chutneys are also typical ingredients in the Afrikaans pantry.

Cape Malay

Malays were brought to this country as slaves, and they soon formed part of a fusion culture with local people from the Cape (around the present-day Cape Town area). This cooking is characterised by extremely tasty, spicy curries, stews and roasts. Their preserves differ greatly from anything else on the market, and include delicious atchars and pickles. The side dishes to the Cape Malay curries are almost as important as the dishes themselves. Sambals, plain yoghurt and chutney are the most common of these.

Today, South Africans combine many of the influences from these different sources to create a fabulously unique cuisine. For example, an English fish and chips dish may embrace Malay influences by serving smoked snoek and sweet potato as a variation. By so doing, a definite sense of cultural unity is engendered.