As far as I was concerned, South Africa was just enviable beaches, cricket, wildlife safaris and the infamous Mahatma Gandhi train incident I recalled from my history textbooks. What I did not expect was to be blown away by the cuisine after spending a week there. The food has plenty of global influences. There’s the Indian touch, but flavours from Malaysia, Indonesia and Holland add to the taste and make the cuisine so electrifying and mouthwatering, you’re left wanting more.
I arrived in Durban on a Monday evening after a 12-hour journey. My room was right next to the beach, and one look outside the window made me forget my jet lag. The city’s coastline looked absolutely stunning. Colourful surfboards dotted the waves, sunbathers lazed on one side and energetic South African hip-hop played on the other side—all beckoning me to step out. Children cycled around and tourists like me took photographs of everything, but among all this activity, I noticed food trucks scattered throughout the length of the beach, all serving hollowed bread filled with lots of curry.
This food item was invented by the Indian community in Durban—though you won’t find it in India—and it is served with meats like chicken, shrimp or lamb, or kidney beans. It is quite spicy, so ask for a milder version if you have low tolerance. Called the bunny chow, it is, indeed, a fusion of everything Indian and South African.
Before I left for the South Africa, I was highly recommended the braai. Unlike a regular barbecue, it is old-fashioned wood fired. Traditionally, the meat is cooked directly in the fire and not on a grill (although, most places have use one now). This helps infuse it with a smokey flavour. Also, people sit and socialise around the braai, often with a beer in hand. It might as well have been a camp on a chilly night. Experience a braai at least once during a visit to South Africa. However, it is not easy finding such gatherings except in butcheries such as Mzoli’s in Gugulethu or Nomzamo Butchery in Langa.
I was lucky to stay in the Turnberry Boutique Hotel in Oudtshoorn, which had a braai evening with meats such as beef, ostrich and chicken. Here, I got to enjoy the company of people from all over the world. A very famous dish cooked on the fire is called boerewors. It is speculated that early Dutch immigrants brought it to South Africa. It is, essentially, coarsely minced beef (sometimes mixed with ground pork) rolled into sausages. Its unique flavour comes from the generous amounts of toasted coriander, black pepper, nutmeg and cloves added to it. The meat is eaten along with chakalaka, a South African vegetable relish, made of tomato and chillies. Generous amounts of grilled veggies are served as accompaniments.
Another Durban haunt to enjoy braai at is the Linga Lapa restaurant at Natal Midlands, a tiny place run by Ian Mackay and his wife, who are exceptionally warm hosts. The rustic inn has a homey feel courtesy the relaxed atmosphere and warm fires. I ditched the braai here and tried their grilled meats. Linga Lapa’s speciality is matured steaks sourced from beef farms in KwaZulu-Natal. The juicy pork ribs and moist lamb loin chops were the tastiest I have ever had. The cherry on the top was the Dom Pedro, a special South African drink, of vanilla ice cream mixed with whisky. You can even opt for Amarula, Kahlúa or Amaretto versions at the restaurant.
No visit to South Africa is complete without a lunch in a vineyard. The country is, after all, known for its wine. After a tasting session at Kay and Monty Vineyards (in Plettenberg Bay, a seaside town) where I tried six varieties of wine, I needed some food in my system. At the restaurant, I tried the platter with cured ostrich meat, and the South African samosa. The tenderness of the meat complemented by the crispiness of the samosa and the wine that had given me a comfortable high made this an unforgettable experience. Vegetarians can enjoy a glass of wine with a cheese platter and the breathtaking view from the outdoor terraces.
I must mention that the country is known for game delicacies. My personal favourite is springbok. A springbok shank spread over a bed of mashed potatoes makes for a delightful dinner. It is tender, sweet, and leaner and lighter than other meats.
After all this indulgence at a meat lover’s paradise, I craved some carbs. So, I decided to try Cape Town’s favourite food—gatsby. Of course, when you hear the word you think of Leonardo DiCaprio, all snazzy and larger than life. This gatsby is nothing like that except for the fact that it is extravagant. This is a footlong sandwich filled with plenty of chips, hot sauce and a lot of fish. One gatsby can be shared among many people. It is said that the sandwich originated when people started buying footlong bread and filling it with whatever was left over from the previous day’s meal. This very reasonably priced food is available in all street stalls and at piers.
Bobotie is almost like the country’s national dish. It is enjoyed at all festivals and you will find it in most restaurants. It is generally minced lamb or beef, and sometimes chicken, topped with an egg to give it a melt-in-your-mouth fluffy texture. It is garnished with nuts and apricots that not only add a lovely fragrance but also crunchiness. The vegetarian version, made with minced soya, is delicious. If there had to be a dessert to accompany the national dish, I believe it should be the malva pudding. It is a sponge cake drizzled with honey and apricot jam, and served with cream. It too is ubiquitous, and happens to have a Dutch origin. I consider this combo a national dish also because bobotie and malva, when served together, give you the colours of the South African flag.
While walking on the streets of Durban, I saw a café named Sugarlicious. How could I resist stepping into a place with that name? I discovered that they serve ice cream sandwiched between macaroons. Founded by an Indian, some of the flavours here include barfi, jalebi and chai. Indian or not, you must taste them all.
Before you leave the country, stop by a butcher and bring back another speciality called biltong, which is a meat that is hung and air-dried. In the 19th century, the Dutch farmers who wanted to escape the British-ruled Cape Town decided to take a long trek up north. They needed food that did not rot and could survive the long journey without refrigeration. Hence, the biltong was born. They chose meat of excellent quality, cut it into strips, and rubbed it with vinegar, spices like coriander and black pepper, sugar and salt. This was then air-dried. The ostrich biltong is unique. Since it is a preserved item, it can last up to three months.
A visitor with a sweet tooth ought to pick up honey-onion marmalade. This can be a great accompaniment to anything salty. These are much healthier alternatives to chips-and-dip and also make an excellent gift to take back home. And, of course, if you have friends and family who enjoy tea, I suggest you take back rooibos. It is herbal, made from a plant of the Fabaceae family that is grown here. This tea has a reddish glow and is drunk without milk. It is said to cure headaches, insomnia and asthma, and prevent premature ageing as well as hypertension and bone weakness. Now that’s quite the elixir of life.
In the end, I feel, I saw a different side to South Africa that made me aware of its culinary past and strengths. Even though the country claims to not have a unique cuisine, the culture and warmth of the people has infused so much into the dishes that they have become unique. Indians will feel extremely comfortable here, as the food choices have not just many vegetarian options but are also suitable to their palate. Taste it to understand it, over and over again.