For the more daring diner, South Africa offers culinary challenges ranging from crocodile sirloins to fried caterpillars to sheep heads. All three are reputed to be delicious.
For the not-quite so brave, there are myriad indigenous delicacies such as biltong (dried, salted meat), bobotie (a much-improved version of Shepherd’s pie) and boerewors (hand-made farm sausages, grilled on an open flame).
Those who prefer to play it altogether safe will find that most eateries offer a familiar global menu – anything from hamburgers to sushi to pad thai to spaghetti bolognaise. And you can drink the tap water.
On a single street in a Johannesburg suburb, one finds Italian restaurants, two or three varieties of Chinese cookery, Japanese, Moroccan, French, Portuguese and Indian food, both Tandoor and Gujarati. Not far away are Congolese restaurants, Greek, even Brazilian and Korean establishments, and, everywhere, fusion, displaying the fantasies of creative chefs.
It’s not much different in the other major centres, such as Cape Town or Durban. Restaurant guides that categorise eateries by national style list close to two dozen, including Vietnamese and Swiss.
Those in search of authentic South African cuisine have to look harder for those few establishments that specialise in it – like the justly famous Gramadoelas in central Johannesburg, Wandie’s Place in Soweto, the Africa Cafe in central Cape Town or smaller restaurants in that city’s Bo-Kaap, in Khayelitsha and Langa.
Or one can watch for glimmers of the real thing. There are varieties of biltong in every cafe, in big cities and little dorps. Every weekend there wafts from neighbourhoods rich and poor the smell of spicy sosaties being grilled over the braai. Steak houses may specialise in flame-grilled aged sirloin, but they also offer boerewors.
And sometimes, in posh restaurants, there is the occasional fusion dish – not the common merger of east and west, but north and south: marinated ostrich carpaccio at Sage in Pretoria, oxtail ravioli with saffron cream sauce at Bartholomeus Klip in Hermon on the Cape west coast, even Tandoori crocodile at the Pavilion in the Marine hotel in Hermanus.
There is crocodile on the menu and kudu, impala, even warthog at a number of restaurants that offer game. But there won’t be seagull, mercifully, or penguin. Both were staple foods for the strandlopers (or beachcombers) – a community of Khoi who lived on the Cape shore – and the Dutch and Portuguese sailors who made landfall there.
It was the search for food that shaped modern South Africa: spices drew the Dutch East India Company to Java in the mid-1600s, and the need for a half-way refreshment stop for its ships rounding the Cape impelled the Company to plant a farm at the tip of Africa. There are sections of Commander Jan van Riebeeck’s wild almond hedge still standing in the Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town.
That farm changed the region forever. The Company discovered it was easier to bring in thousands of hapless 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.
The French Huguenots arrived soon after the Dutch, and 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).
Much later, sugar farmers brought indentured labourers from India to cut the cane. The British, looking for gold and empire, also brought their customs and cuisine, as did German immigrants.
And black communities carried on eating their traditional, healthy diet: game, root vegetables and wild greens, berries, millet, sorghum and maize, and protein-rich insects like locusts.
Today the resultant kaleidoscope – the famous “rainbow” – applies not only to the people but to the food, for one finds in South Africa the most extraordinary range of cuisines.
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