In the precolonial period indigenous cuisine was characterised by the use of a very wide range of fruits, nuts, bulbs, leaves and other products gathered from wild plants and by the hunting of wild game. The domestication of cattle in the region about two thousand years ago by Khoisan groups enabled the use of milk products and the availability of fresh meat on demand. However, during the colonial period the seizure of communal land in South Africa helped to restrict and discourage traditional agriculture and wild harvesting, and reduced the extent of land available to black people.
Urbanisation from the nineteenth century onward, coupled with close control over agricultural production, led black South Africans to rely more and more on comparatively expensive, industrially-processed foodstuffs like wheat flour, white rice, mealie (maize) meal and sugar. Often these foods were imported or processed by white wholesalers, mills and factories. The consequence was to drastically restrict the range of ingredients and cooking styles used by indigenous cooks. On the other hand, some imported food plants (maize, tomatoes) have expanded the dietary range of indigenous cooks. Of these maize is the most significant – it has been integrated to such an extent into the traditional diet that it is often assumed to be an indigenous plant.
Biltong, meat that is dried, salted, and spiced (similar to jerky), and beskuits (dried sweetened biscuits, like zwiebeck or rusks) were popular food among the original pioneers and are both still enjoyed by 21st century South Africans. Dried fruits, eaten whole or ground into a paste, are also popular treats. The practice of modern agriculture was introduced by the Bantu, natives of northern Africa. They taught inhabitants to grow vegetables such as corn (“mealies”), squash, and sweet potatoes. Modern Zulu people, most of whom live in northeastern South Africa, enjoy a soft porridge made from mealie-meal (cornmeal), and dishes combining meat and vegetables such as dried corn and yams.
Nearly 200 years after the Portuguese first arrived in South Africa, Dutch settlers, known as Boers, built the first European settlement at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. The Dutch planted gardens with pumpkins, watermelons, cucumbers, pineapples, and potatoes. Meanwhile, the Dutch East India Company increased trade between South Africa, Europe, and India, bringing new and unfamiliar people and cuisines to South Africa’s culture. Slaves from the east, mostly from Malaysia, helped work as farmers or fishermen. They brought with them various spices that added flavour to commonly bland Dutch and English stews and dishes.
Other countries also brought diversity to South African cuisine. The French, known for making wines, began establishing vineyards. The Germans introduced baked goods and pastries and the British brought meat pies. Foods from India, China, and Indonesia also influenced the South African diet.
Early settlers simmered potjiekos (stew) for hours in a three-legged iron pot over a very small open fire. Ingredients would be added to the pot of potjiekos as they became available, such as animals caught by hunters or trappers and vegetables or wild plants harvested from the open fields.
Foods of the South Africans
Seafood, a staple food in South African diets, is plentiful along the country’s Atlantic and Indian Ocean coastlines. Hake is the most common fish, caught in the Atlantic Ocean waters. It is sold as “fish and chips” (pieces of deep-fried fish with French fries) and pickled. Rock lobster, mussels, octopus and cod are also popular seafood selections, particularly at the country’s southern tip.
South Africa’s mild climate produces a variety of fruits and vegetables. Potatoes, cabbage, corn (“mealies”), sunflower, peppers and green beans are commonly grown. The abundance of rain in the northern tip of the country allows tropical fruits to grow, including bananas, pineapples and mangoes. Such fruits make delicious desserts.
Dishes of British origin are seasoned and flavourful in South Africa. Spices were added to popular meals, such as the meat pie. The Boer (Dutch) Chicken Pie is a crusted chicken potpie with plenty of seasonings, topped with eggs and ham. Bobotie, a beef or lamb potpie, contains raisins, apples, almonds and curry powder, a savoury seasoning.
Sausages (made of beef or pork) and sosaties, seasoned lamb on a skewer, are commonly eaten at meals. Sosaties are most frequently served at a barbecue, or braai, party and served with sauce and biscuits. South Africans make sosaties in different ways, with a variety of seasonings to make the meal more flavorful.