Eating and Drinking
Viva la gastro-revolucion!
South Africans are an extraordinarily hospitable people and will feed you with equal gusto. In fact if you are on a trip staying in guest houses and lodges you should stand amazed at the variety and quality of every meal that you are presented with. That was my recent experience when we took a holiday this summer in Limpopo Province. The problem was saying no.
Ten years ago and before that, South Africans were equally hospitable… but the culinary sophistication was perhaps lacking. Meat dishes covered in thick gloopy sauces with overcooked vegetables were the norm. Vegetarians could pick the meat out of the same dish if they really wanted… or starve.
But the recent boom in the tourist industry has meant a demand for good food to go with all that good wine. The fine cooking enjoyed by visitors to the country today has built on the uniquely South African palette of food and flavours introduced by the varied mix of settlers to the country. Long-standing Indian (spice), Huguenot (wine and French cuisine) and African (pap and butternut squash for e.g.) influences are being added to all the time by cuisines from all around the world.
There are many traditional local delicacies to try, however. Try Karoo lamb, kudu, springbok, ostrich and biltong (meat that has been dried, spiced and salted) from the meat counter. Very often meat is cooked on a braai, the South African barbecue.
Soweto's Chris Hani Hospital is the biggest in the world.
Along the West Coast are several open-air beach restaurants serving fish straight from the sea, via the braai, to your plate. Kingklip, yellowtail and snoek are common southern sea-dwellers that make their way onto menus. For oysters stop off in Kynsna on the Garden Route.
Although there is still some distance to travel, vegetarians are pretty well catered for these days. 'No meat thanks' will probably still draw looks of disbelief in farm kitchens deep in the bush, but in urban hubs, and especially around the Cape, there is a growing number of vegetarian eateries, as well as a move towards organic production methods. And food provided in guest-houses and lodges in every corner of the country is usually superb. It is worth noting that if you are eating out many places allow you to BYO alcohol.
If you're feeling peckish, here are a few South African delicacies to keep you going…
Biltong – This is a traditional Afrikaner delicacy of dried and salted raw meat, similar to the beef jerky made in the US. You'll also find it made from ostrich or game such as kudu or impala.
Bobotie – Sometimes described as South African moussaka, this interesting Cape Malay dish is made with minced meat, spices and dried fruit, topped with a light egg custard and baked. Served with rice and chutney, it is delicious.
Boerewors – This spicy beef or lamb sausage is the staple ingredient at any open-air braai (barbecue) where it is grilled over charcoal.
Koeksisters – Twisted into plait-like braids, these sweet, sticky, syrup-coated doughnuts are the stuff of dentists' nightmares, and children's dreams.
Malva Pudding – The origins of this homey sponge pudding nod to the Netherlands. Apricot jam, butter, sugar and cream take the lead roles, supported by a rich, creamy sauce that soaks it and a hot custard that's served on it's side.
Pap – Ground maize porridge and the staple diet of most South Africans. It is either served hot or cooled and then fried, and is often accompanied by a tomato and onion sauce.
Potjie – Pronounced 'poikey', this is an African cast-iron cooking pot for making stews. Vegetables and meat are cooked slowly in the pot that's traditionally placed in a hole in the ground on burning embers.
Rooibos – 'Red bush' tea is naturally uncaffeinated and made from the leaves of an indigenous shrub to the Cederberg. Prized today for its anti-oxidants and anti-allergic properties, the tea was drunk for centuries by the Khosian tribe as a herbal medicine. This is the most non-addictive tea I've ever become addicted to.
Snoek – A popular and tasty fish caught off the Cape coast. It is often eaten smoked or, a real South African treat, on the braai.
Most Asians in South Africa are descendants of Indian labourers brought in by the British to work on the sugar cane plantations and today Durban is home to the largest Asian population in sub-Saharan Africa. India's independence leader Mahatma Ghandi was once among that population, working here as a lawyer in the early 1900s.
Wine-growing in the Winelands
South Africa is a huge place, but very little of it is suitable vine-growing country. Fortunately the Cape's first Dutch governor, Jan van Riebeeck, picked the right spot when he planted the first vineyard in 1655, and his wine-loving successor Simon van der Stel made good wine from the outset on his Constantia farm on the back of Table Mountain. But the Dutch weren't the greatest of vintners and it was only after the French Huguenots brought their savoir-faire to the Cape between 1680 and 1690 that the wine industry really flourished. As religious refugees, the Huguenots were very short on cash and had to adapt their established wine-making techniques to new conditions. But in time they honed their skills and left a permanent stamp on the industry, which today employs about 257,000 people. The name Franschhoek, meaning French corner, says it all.