South Africa Feature

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Flavors of South Africa

South Africa's rich cultural legacy comes alive on the plate, in the array of flavors and tastes influenced by the mélange of people who have lived here, as well as in the global cuisine. Restaurants score well in international awards and subscribe to the highest food safety standards. Confusingly, an entrée in South Africa is considered an appetizer rather than a main course.

BBQ Traditions

South Africans love to braai (rhymes with rye)—i.e., barbecue—at any opportunity. In black townships, literally hundreds of people meet and socialize around an outdoor fire at recreational sites, after purchasing meat from nearby butchers and drinks from a corner shebeen (neighborhood tavern). But it's in the homes of South Africans that the braai comes to life.

Boerewors (pronounced boo-rah-vors)—beef and pork sausage with heady doses of coriander seed, lamb chops, and chicken pieces—is a braai staple. Sosaties (so-sah-teez), skewers of meat with fruit or vegetables, are also popular. Potatoes and sweet potatoes, known as patats (pah-tutzz), are often wrapped in foil and cooked among the coals. Broodjies (brew-kiss) are sandwiches (typically onion and tomato) cooked on the fire to the perfect consistency: crisp on the outside, moist on the inside. A potjie (phoi-kee) is a three-legged cast-iron pot as well as the name of the dish typically prepared in it: meat on the bone is layered with vegetables (potatoes, onions, garlic, dried beans) and cooked over low coals for at least three hours (think paella).

During the grape harvest (March-April) a soft, sweet bread is made from the grape must. Called mosbolletjies (mohss-ball-eh-keys), it's irresistible if purchased fresh from the oven.

Indigenous South African Dishes

Pap (pronounced pup; also known as samp) is made from maize meal and cooked to varying consistencies—krummel (krah-muhl) is dry and crumbly, whereas stywe (stay-ver) is like a stiff porridge. A staple across the continent, it's served alongside stewed vegetables or meats. The texture is like couscous, and the flavor is mild enough to take on the taste of whatever is served with it, such as chicken or a vegetable stew of sugar beans, onions, and potatoes. Other vegetables abundant in South African recipes include gem squash, butternut squash, pumpkin, green beans, tomatoes, and cabbage. You may also come across the following confusing terms: rocket (arugula), peppadew (a cross between a pepper and cherry tomato), or waterblommetjiebredie (literally flower stew, made from the buds of a Western Cape flower).

For dessert expect malva (muhl-vah) pudding, its sweet and sour notes created by pouring an apricot-jam-and-vinegar sauce over sponge cake. Melktert (melk-tet) is a thick custard typically dusted with cinnamon or nutmeg. Koeksisters (cook-sis-ter) is braided sweet dough boiled in cinnamon-spiced syrup. Finger-shaped coconut doughnuts usually available only at Cape Malay restaurants or at carnivals are also called koeksisters.

Immigrant Influences

Despite the name, the cuisine of Cape Town's Malay community is not Malaysian, but instead mixes the flavors, spices, and preparations of Indonesia, China, Africa, and Europe. Bobotie, a curried, minced beef with raisins, topped with a savory custard mixture, most closely resembles English shepherd's pie—with a kick. Bredie is another way of saying stew and is often made with tomatoes. You'll find samoosas (samosas—pronounced sah-moo-sah here)—curry-mince or vegetable-filled, deep-fried three-cornered nibbles—at every corner café. Rootis (rotis—pronounced root-ee), a soft, griddled tortilla, when filled with curry-mince is called a salomi (pronounced sah-low-me). Sure to cause indigestion, the Gatsby is a long roll packed with lettuce, tomatoes, french fries, and melted cheese; a proteinlike sausage or steak is added and then topped with anything from mayonnaise to peri-peri (fiery tomato-and-chili sauce that originated in Mozambique). You will find them at roadside cafés in half or full portions. "Bunny chow," made famous in Durban by indentured Asian laborers who couldn't sit down to eat, is a half or quarter white-bread loaf that's hollowed out, filled with curry, and capped by the leftover bread. Top your snacks with chakalaka (a spicy vegetable relish) or peri-peri, which is perfect with grilled seafood.

Beyond Beef

Similar to beef jerky, biltong is a popular snack that's found just about everywhere from roadside stands to high-end markets. Types range from beef and ostrich to game (kudu is a favorite) and can be flavored with spices. Dried sausage and crisp, thin biltong pieces known as snap sticks perfectly accompany a beer.

Frikkadels, mini lamb rissoles (small croquettes), are occasionally wrapped in cabbage leaves and flavored with nutmeg, reminiscent of Eastern European stuffed cabbage dishes or the little Greek meatballs called keftedes.

Many restaurants serve game such as ostrich and springbok but also wildebeest, impala, and kudu. Karoo lamb is the most delicious lamb you will find, on account of the herby Santolina bush the animals eat in the arid Karoo region. The meat has an almost perfumed quality to it.

Succulent Seafood

In a country surrounded on three sides by water, it's no surprise that a major source of protein comes from the sea. Once used as bait, rock lobster (also known as crayfish) is now highly sought after and closely resembles New England lobster. Costly perlemoen or abalone, which is almost on the brink of extinction, is tough and best described as similar to calamari steak. Local fish include kingklip (a firm white fish), hake (a flaky, white fish called haddock once smoked), and snoek (pronounced snook), an oily fish with many long bones. Line-caught fish includes Cape salmon (also known as geelbek), which isn't salmon at all but is sure to be on the menu. You may come across kabeljou (cabal-yoh), also known as kob, a firm fish similar in appearance to salmon. The best prawns and langoustines usually come from Mozambique. Tuna is often seared; it's divine with a pepper crust. Unexpectedly, the best seafood is in landlocked Johannesburg, as merchants send their best quality to the biggest market.

Eating on Safari

Since most, if not all, of the ingredients must be flown in or grown locally in small quantities, you might expect meals to be limited. However, you'll usually have a choice of entrée options (two to three), and you'll be amazed at the delicious and innovative creations that come out of the kitchen. You'll also have plenty of opportunity to try new varieties of fish or game and South African wines. Breads and pastries are generally fresh baked, and any dietary concerns are catered to as best as possible. Don't be surprised if you gain a few pounds. It's not unheard of to eat six or seven times a day. Dining is truly a pastime on safari.

Taste at Your Own Risk

Odd-sounding treats are often presented on a township tour. Two of the most common are smileys (sheep's heads cooked in the fire) and walkie-talkies, which appropriately enough, are made from chicken heads and feet. You may also be offered Mopane worms, a tofulike, protein-rich staple that tends to take on the taste of other ingredients; it's typically cooked with tomatoes and onions. More Afrikaner than African, skilpadjies (skul-pai-keys) is calf liver covered by caul fat, and poffaddertjies (pohf-aader) is liver and kidneys stuffed into a sheep's intestine and cooked on the braai.

Wetting Your Whistle

South Africa's world-renowned wines are shockingly inexpensive. Tastings at wineries average R20 to try five wines and you'll be hard-pressed to find a bottle of wine on the menu for more than R250.

Pinotage, a cross between pinot noir and Cinsaut varieties, is truly a South African original and will always be on a wine list. Grassy or mineral-y sauvignon blanc is a very good food wine. Local chardonnays, especially the costlier ones that have benefited from oaking, are renowned. Red wine vineyards are younger in South Africa and produce different flavors than expected for cabernet sauvignon, Shiraz, and pinot noir. Chenin blanc, one of the best value wines available, often appears as "steen."

Much as in wine-growing regions from California to Australia and New Zealand, the dining emphasis is on the freshest greens, light flavors, and experimental dishes that complement the relaxed atmosphere. Many vineyards have cafés attached so you can eat a light meal between tastings if you plan ahead.

South Africans consume more beer than any other nation on the continent; this area was settled by the Dutch, Germans, and English, after all. South African Breweries (SAB) controls most of the beer market, and its most popular brew is Castle Lager. You'll also find Windhoek lager, a Namibian beer, on offer. If you like hard cider, keep an eye out for Hunters Gold and Savanna Dry.

South Africans have created nectars like muscadels (muscatels) filled with intense fruits, to creamy liqueurs best served over ice under a full moon. Amarula, South Africa's unique creamy fruit liqueur with the elephant on the label, is popular. Some say it's similar to Bailey's Irish Cream. South Africa's brandy regularly beats cognacs in blind tastings.

Teetotalers might prefer to quaff rooibos (pronounced roy-boss), the unique South African red bush tea. Ginger beer, a carbonated soft drink, is another tasty option, while the local answer to root beer is Irn-Bru (an orange-colored soft drink). Fruit-based drinks such as Appletiser (carbonated) or LiquiFruit (noncarbonated) are very good. As a fruit-producing region, top quality fruit is always available at supermarkets. The naartjie (nah-chee) is an easy-peeling small citrus, while melons like spanspek (spun-speck) and paw-paw (papaya) are available elsewhere and are usually served at breakfast.

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