As the ‘cradle of humankind’, South Africa is considered the birthplace of cooking. The country’s long culinary heritage is duly seasoned with an incredible diversity of people, ingredients, flavours and preparation methods that have graced its shores for millions of years.
Cooking as we know it was born in south-eastern Africa at least 1.5 million years ago, when Homo ergaster realised fires weren’t only good for keeping warm. Since then, South Africa has experienced wave upon wave of migration, with each group of new arrivals bringing with them ingredients, flavours and techniques, all the way up to the current day.
On the surface – especially in the more touristy areas – South African cuisine can feel predictable and Westernised these days. It is entirely possible to dine only on imported favourites like pizza, pasta, burgers and sushi while touring the country. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll find the influence of Khoekhoe pastoralists, Nguni herdsmen, Dutch and British colonisers, Malay slaves, Indian indentured labourers and Greek, Lebanese and Jewish immigrants, to name but a few.
Many of South Africa’s dishes combine the influences of several of these cultures in surprising ways. In Cape Town, immigrants from the Portuguese island of Madeira have made classic British fish and chips their own, whereas chakalaka, a spicy mixed-vegetable relish that brings many a township meal to life, clearly has its roots in Indian atchar.
South Africa’s well-developed restaurant scene has something for every palate and price point. While you should certainly try to get bookings at some of the big-name spots in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, you should also make a point of eating at the markets, cafés and greasy spoons that cater for everyone else. South Africa is a land of many flavours, and nowhere is this truer than in its food.