Cape Malay cuisine at Old Biscuit Mill Saturday Market

10 Best South African Foods & Drink to Discover on Your Visit 

Last updated Aug 18, 2022 | Food & Wine, South Africa

You can learn so much about a country’s culture and history through its cuisine. South Africa is no exception. The Dutch brought their garden produce (like potatoes, pumpkins, and watermelons). Slaves from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Madagascar brought exciting spices. The French brought their winemaking techniques. Germans brought their sausage and pastries. British brought their meat pies. Indians brought their curries. South African food is truly a melting pot of different origins and culinary customs! Find out which South African foods are worth trying and where to go to get a taste of this diverse cuisine.

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Biltong

South African biltong

Biltong 

Ah, one of the most popular South African snacks!

What is it? The Dutch word “bil” means rump/meat, and “tong” means strip. So this South African delicacy is a “strip of meat” that is seasoned with vinegar, salt, pepper, coriander and spices and allowed to air dry for a week or two. Vinegar gives it a distinct flavor. It is usually made from beef, but game meat can also be used.

I don’t care for beef jerky (never could acquire the taste for those Slim Jims), but I actually kinda liked the flavor of biltong.  Some describe biltong as what you would get if jerky and prosciutto had a baby. What’s the difference between beef jerky and biltong?

BILTONG:

  • Cut into thick strips with various fat percentages (the good stuff is made with prime cuts of beef silverside)
  • Vinegar is added
  • Never smoked
  • No heat used, only air-dried

BEEF JERKY:

  • Normally cut thin
  • No vinegar
  • Often smoked, hence the “smoky” taste
  • Cooked into a dehydrator

This high protein/low carb South African food can be enjoyed alone or in sandwiches or stews.

Sundowner with biltong snack while on safari at Lion Sands River Lodge at Sabi Sands Game Reserve

Enjoying a sundowner with biltong as a snack (as seen in the metal tin on the far left) while on safari at Lion Sands River Lodge at Sabi Sands Game Reserve

WHERE TO TRY SOUTH AFRICAN BILTONG:

The Butcher Man in Cape Town or grocery stores (brands like Stoffelberg Biltong). We had it shaved over butter to pair with fresh bread at Creation Restaurant during our wine tour (an interesting combination) and also as a snack during our evening safari drive at Lions Sands River Lodge in Sabi Sands Game Reserve.

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Karoo Lamb

South African Karoo lamb

Karoo lamb

I have had New Zealand lamb (I dream of Pedro’s House of Lamb!) and Icelandic lamb but did not realize South Africa is known for its high-quality lamb.

Sparkling wine can only be labeled Champagne if it comes from the Champagne wine region in France. Beef can only be called Kobe beef if it is a specific breed of cattle called Tajima-gyu born and raised in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture (whose capital city is Kobe).

In the same tradition, you can only call lamb a Karoo lamb if it comes from the Karoo region in South Africa. Geography matters for these iconic foods!

In addition, the lamb has to be raised among 2 of 6 specific indigenous shrubs, which gives it a unique herbaceous flavor. Look for the Karoo Meat of Origin certification label, which guarantees the origin and how the lamb was raised and pastured.

Karoo lamb with pumpkin, salsa verde, and smoked olive at La Petite Colombe Restaurant in Franshhoek South Africa

Must-try South African food: Karoo lamb with pumpkin, salsa verde, and smoked olive at La Petite Colombe Restaurant in Franschhoek

WHERE TO TRY SOUTH AFRICAN KAROO LAMB: 

Local butchers or a restaurant that serves certified Karoo lamb. We had the pleasure of trying this delicious meat at La Petite Colombe and Chefs Warehouse at Maison while we were in Franschhoek.

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Fish & Chips

Hake and chips at Fish on the Rocks in South Africa

Fish & Chips at Fish on the Rocks 

Surrounded by both the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, you know South Africa has to have great seafood! From kingklip to snoek to tuna to abalone to mussels to oyster to langoustines, there is no shortage of choices.

One can enjoy this seafood as one of the main courses such as the quail, langoustine, mussel, & ham dish at La Petite Colombe or as fast food at a local fish & chips shop. Fish & chips continue to be local’s favorite South African foods. It is usually made from fresh hake or snoek that is fried to order until it is golden and crispy.

Snoek (species of snake mackerel) is considered an iconic traditional South African food. This feisty fish is typically consumed as a pate or grilled fresh with a little apricot jam and butter. We enjoyed it with “butter” at The Test Kitchen in Cape Town and as pate with curried labneh at La Petite Colombe in Franschhoek.

Enjoying fish & chips at Fish on the Rocks in Hout Bay South Africa

Enjoying fish & chips at Fish on the Rocks in Hout Bay, South Africa

WHERE TO TRY SOUTH AFRICAN FISH & CHIPS: 

There are several well-known fish & chips shops, and everyone has their favorite. Ours was Fish on the Rocks in Hout Bay. With Chapman’s Peak as our dramatic backdrop, we enjoyed fresh made-to-order fish & chips while sitting outdoors on a bench at the edge of the working harbor with the seagulls flying above. We went around lunchtime, and the place was packed.

You know you have found a good place when 1) you see a line out the door and 2) you are surrounded by locals. It does not get much better than that. Oh, and the food was delicious too!

*** Later I found out Somebody Feed Phil actually filmed a scene chowing down on fish & chips at the Fish on the Rocks during his visit to Cape Town. 

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South African Craft Gin

South African KWV Cruxland Gin and Tonic

KWV Cruxland Gin 

I lost count of how many gin & tonics we had during our trip to South Africa! Everywhere you turned, it seemed like someone was making gin.

Craft gin in South Africa is booming. In its simplest definition, gin is a base spirit + JUNIPER + optional other botanicals. The base spirit can be made from barley, rye, corn, grapes, wheat, etc. 

One way some gin distillers in South Africa make their gin stand out is to incorporate the local fynbos, which is a specific type of vegetation in South Africa. We had the opportunity to try the crisp and zesty Gin Classic from Inverroche, which is known for incorporating fynbos into their trilogy of gins (Classic Verdant, and Amber). Other brands we tried that we enjoyed were the Musgrave Pink Gin and the Six Dogs Blue Gin.

Winemakers have taken notice of this trend too. When we were doing our wine tour of Moreson Wine Farm, we had a chance to taste their small-batch Wildcraft Equinox 79 Gin, which is made from triple-distilled Chardonnay and nine botanicals.

Gin makers such as Indlovu are even using unusual ingredients like elephant dung to make their gin stand out. Hmmm … I don’t know about that. 

KWV Cruxland was the FIRST SOUTH AFRICAN GIN to win the prestigious World’s Best London Dry Gin at the 2020 World Gin Awards beating out over 150 international brands from 39 countries! Their secret is the rare and exotic Kalahari truffle. Surprisingly, you do not find these truffles in the forests of France or Italy. They are located in the one place you would never guess … buried beneath the sands of the Kahalari desert. 

Love this gin! 

Stanley & Livingstone Boutique Hotel Sundowner with Six Dogs Blue Gin and Tonic

Stanley & Livingstone Boutique Hotel Sundowner with Six Dogs Blue Gin and Tonic. Infusion of the Blue Pea flower gives gin that striking blue color.

Stanley & Livingstone Boutique Hotel Sundowner with a Musgrave Pink Gin and Tonic

Stanley & Livingstone Boutique Hotel Sundowner with a Musgrave Pink Gin and Tonic

Moreson Wildcraft Gin

Wildcraft Gin at Moreson Wine Farm, made from triple-distilled Chardonnay

WHERE TO TRY SOUTH AFRICAN CRAFT GIN: 

A fun place to experience the craft gin experience is the appropriately named speakeasy, The Gin Bar in Cape Town. With over 70 indigenous gins, you are bound to find something you enjoy.

Finding it is the fun part. You actually walk through the Honest Chocolate Cafe and into a secret, charming, light-filled Mediterranean courtyard. Order a “cure” (signature gin & tonic) off the menu or plan your day to take advantage of Gin Tastings offered Thursday – Saturday.

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Malva Pudding

Miso corn malva pudding with popcorn ice cream at Chefs Warehouse at Maison in Franschhoek South Africa

Miso corn malva pudding with popcorn ice cream at Chefs Warehouse at Maison in Franschhoek

It is considered one of South Africa’s iconic desserts. Nelson Mandela loved it, and Oprah’s chef Art Smith served it at her Leadership Academy’s first Christmas dinner. Surprisingly, it was created not that long ago.

So what is South African Malva Pudding?

People have created different versions of it, but the original recipe is made with apricot preserves and vinegar. A sweet indulgent sauce is poured over this fluffy cake right after it is done baking, which is also the technique used to make tres leches.

As the story goes, back in the ‘70s, a woman named Maggie Pepler was asked to help run the kitchen at Boschendal Wine Estate by wine expert Michael Olivier. Her malva pudding quickly became famous, and now it has become an iconic South African food. 

For many South Africans, it brings up nostalgic childhood memories. Rich, warm, fluffy, indulgent, and spongy describe this feel-good dessert. It is best served with homemade vanilla custard or ice cream.

A variant of the malva pudding is the Tipsy Tart, which is a brandy pudding. We enjoyed this delicious dessert during our stay at the Stanley & Livingstone Boutique Hotel in Zimbabwe.

WHERE TO TRY SOUTH AFRICAN MALVA PUDDING: 

Mama Africa in Cape Town. We experienced a modern interpretation of this decadent dessert at the Chefs Warehouse at Maison, which was delicious.

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Bobotie

South African bobotie

South African bobotie

Pronounced bow-buh-tai. South Africa’s national dish. Think of it like a meatloaf casserole or shepherd’s pie or Greek moussaka.

We can thank the Dutch and the Cape Malay community for this comforting South African food. The Dutch created the first recipe in 1609, but the Cape Malays put their own touch on it and are responsible for what it is today.

The Cape Malays played an integral part in developing what defines South African food. They are descendants of Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian, and other Asian slaves that were brought over to Cape Town by the Dutch East India Community. They are one of the most unique societies and only exist in South Africa.

When the Cape Malays were slaves, they would consume roast meat on Sundays and then use the leftovers on Monday to make the meat casserole that is now known as bobotie.

Bobotie is made of curried sautéed minced meat (beef or lamb) mixed with bay leaves and sometimes fruits like raisins and then topped with a milk and egg mixture that when baked forms a custard crust.

It is usually served with yellow rice and chutney or sambal, which is a delicious chunky sauce made of raw red chiles, vinegar, and salt. The first time I tried sambal was at the Pot Luck Club when it was paired with Cape Malay fish. This is one of my favorite condiments that I have tried while in South Africa.

South African bobotie

South African bobotie at the Neighbourgoods Market on Saturday at the Old Biscuit Mill

WHERE TO TRY SOUTH AFRICAN BOBOTIE:

Mama Africa, Bo Kaap Kombuis, and The Neighbourgoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill on Saturdays. You have to check out the Neighbourgoods Market to experience traditional Cape Malay cuisine. That is where I first experienced bobotie.

The best way to describe it is a flavorful meat pie. It was good but not something I would crave. It is worth trying once. The market only runs on Saturdays from 9 am – 3 pm, so plan accordingly. In addition to the multiple food stalls, there are plenty of vendors selling wine, beer, gin, coffee, etc.

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Specialty Coffee

Truth Coffee and chocolate eclair in Cape Town

Perfectly brewed coffee at Truth Coffee with a chocolate eclair 

While instant coffee still has its place due to cost and ease of use, interest in freshly brewed specialty coffee in South Africa continues to grow. Farmers are continuing to produce high-quality beans, and the finest baristas are getting recruited to bring out the best flavor of those beans as they whip up some delicious cups of coffee.

South Africa is now one of the coffee hotspots as coffee production and consumption continue to rise. Cape Town, the epicenter of this coffee revolution, is just the place to find that perfect cup. Instead of requesting your cup “to-go” like we often do in the U.S., it is more expected you will be enjoying your coffee “for here” in a proper cup.

South Africa also has the distinction of having the strongest coffee in the world. With a motto #SleepingIsCheating, Black Insomnia contains 92 mg of caffeine per 1 fluid ounce. For reference, 1 fluid ounce of espresso contains about 63 mg of caffeine. If you were to drink an average 12 oz. (1105 mg) cup of Black Insomnia, that is the equivalent of a little over 17 single shots of espresso! 

Truth Coffee Single Origin Burundi

Truth Coffee Single Origin Burundi: Beautiful intense raspberry flavors. Best enjoyed as a black coffee.  Pairs well with milk.

WHERE TO TRY SOUTH AFRICAN SPECIALTY COFFEE:

We had a lovely brewed cup at Origin Coffee Roasting (where the owner of Truth Coffee used to work) at the Saturday market at the Old Biscuit Mill. This company is known to have the widest selection of single-origin coffees in South Africa. 

Other great options are Rosetta Roastery, Espresso Lab Microroasters, and Tribe Coffee Roasting & Cafe.

There is one coffee shop that hands down rises above all the others, which is Truth Coffee. According to the UK’s Daily Telegraph, TRUTH COFFEE IS THE BEST COFFEE SHOP NOT JUST IN SOUTH AFRICA BUT THE ENTIRE WORLD. Who is behind its success? David Donde. According to David, the purpose of his coffee shop is to “bring the joy of the extraordinary to people.”

I can attest the COFFEE IS NEAR PERFECT. No bitterness. No sugar is required. 

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Game Meat

Ostrich

Ostrich 

OSTRICH, It’s what’s for dinner?!? Welcome to Africa. 

Meat lovers rejoice! There is no shortage here. There are many options including kudu, springbok, ostrich, wildebeest, crocodile, zebra, and even warthog. Everyone has their favorites.

One of our safari guides said you have to try warthog. They describe the taste as somewhere between pork and beef. I never got the chance to verify, darn.

I have not had all the game meats, but my favorite so far is ostrich! Delicious! If it is cooked properly, this red (yes, red!) meat tastes just like a beefsteak but much leaner. You can also consume it as a burger or even carpaccio. Not gamey at all. People compare it to filet mignon, and it is much healthier due to the lower fat content.

A lot of game meats are grilled on an open fire with family & friends. This is known as braaing and is a must-do if you have the chance while in South Africa.

Ostrich fillet with bean cassoulet, butterbean puree, beetroot, fine beans, savoy cabbage, port jus at Lion Sands River Lodge in South Africa

Another great South African food to try: Ostrich fillet with bean cassoulet, butterbean puree, beetroot, fine beans, savoy cabbage, and port jus at Lion Sands River Lodge in Sabi Sands Game Reserve

springbok shank with waterblommetjies at Creation Restaurant in Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in South Africa

Springbok shank with waterblommetjies at Creation Restaurant

WHERE TO TRY SOUTH AFRICAN GAME MEAT:

Arnold’s on Kloof, Aubergine, Marco’s African Place, and Mama Africa are all highly rated.

I had springbok (South Africa’s national animal, which is an antelope) at Creation Restaurant in Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. It was cooked perfectly, but it was just not my thing. For me, it was a little chewy and gamey. I also had ostrich at Lion Sands River Lodge in Sabie Sands Game Reserve. Amazing! Why isn’t this meat more available in the US?

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South African Wine

Kanonkop 1989 Award Winning Pinotage

1989 Kanonkop Pinotage 

The world produces some fine wine, and there are certain wine varietals that instantly come to mind when we think of a certain country. Malbec, we think of Argentina. Sauvignon Blanc, we think of New Zealand.

Pinotage, although not as well known, is the quintessential South African wine. It was developed in 1925 and is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. It became famous in 1991 when it won the Robert Mondavi Trophy for the Best Red Wine at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London (see picture above).

Pinotage is very bold and intense in flavor with a wide array of tasting notes such as blackberry, raspberry, smoke, tobacco, and licorice. You will love it or hate it. What to pair with it? Meat! Steak, sausage, burgers, and game meat bring out the wine’s smokiness.

Pinotage is not the only wine varietal South Africa does well. South Africa is also becoming recognized for its high-quality Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, sparkling wines (Methode Cap Classique), Bourdeaux-style blends, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and more!

WHERE TO TRY SOUTH AFRICAN WINE:

You will find many wine choices at South African supermarkets, boutique wine shops, and restaurants. The best way to experience the wine is by visiting the winery itself. I have listed all of the top wineries and what varietals to try in my ultimate guide to South Africa wine country

If you are specifically looking for the top-rated Pinotage that represents what South Africa wine is all about, try the Pinotage from Kanonkop, Beyerskloof, Simonsig, Moreson, and Chamonix. We went to Kanonkop and Moreson during our Cape Town Wine Tour, and the wine was amazing! 

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Koeksisters

South African Koeksister and coffee

Koeksisters

What a fun name. Pronounced “cook-sister.” “Koek” means cake. “Sister” could come from the word “sisser” which means “sizzle” or it could be interpreted to mean literally a sister since the dough is braided like a doll. I think the latter interpretation makes more sense. Breaking the words down then, these decadent treats are “cake sisters.”

This delightful sweet South African food is made of donut dough that is deep-fried and dipped into a sugar syrup. It is considered a Sunday tradition in many South African households. Koeksisters are considered a South African delicacy and were even proudly served with tea to Prince Harry and his wife Meghan when they visited a resident’s home in the Bo-Kaap district on Heritage Day in September of 2019.

This pastry comes in 2 versions:

1. AFRIKAANS KOEKSISTER (with 2 k’s)

The dough is braided and deep-fried and immediately dipped in a cold syrup (very important step!). This technique results in a crispy outside and a sweet syrupy inside. See the picture above. 

2. CAPE MALAY KOESISTER (1 k)

This oval-shaped dough is flavored with spices (like cinnamon aniseed, ginger, and cardamom), deep-fried, allowed to cool, and then dipped in hot syrup and sprinkled with coconut. This technique results in a soft, fluffy, and more donut-like texture. See the pictures below. 

There is also the bolla, which is a baby koesister aka the “glazed donut hole.” A must-try South African food!  

Koesisters and bollas at the Saturday market at the Old Biscuit Mill

Local favorite South African food: Koesisters and bollas at the Saturday market at the Old Biscuit Mill

WHERE TO TRY SOUTH AFRICAN KOEKSISTERS:

While my husband and I were at the Saturday market at the Old Biscuit Mill, we passed by a local Cape Malay food stall that served all of the South African food classics including koesisters and bollas.

Both were delicious, but my favorite was the bollas. I love cake-y desserts. Our bollas were made with dried and ground naartjie (tangerine) peels (gave it a little orange zest), which gave it that special extra touch.

Final Thoughts

We love experiencing a country through its food. South Africa is truly a melting pot of cuisines. From the Saturday markets in Cape Town to South Africa wine country to the safari lodge, there should be plenty of opportunities to try all the amazing examples of South African food. You’ll love the diversity and all the amazing flavor profiles of this incredibly unique cuisine. Enjoy! 

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What other South African foods have you tried?

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