I think that no matter how much or how little we enjoy about an area that we’re in (whether visiting or living), we can usually find local food(s) or drink(s) that we wish that we could take back home with us. I find myself thinking about food a lot. It’s not unusual for me to finish a meal, then find myself pondering the next one. So what I wanted to write about today is South African food – the stuff I do like, and the stuff that, well….I have no desire to take back home with me.
To be fair, I’m only going to stick to the foods that I’ve actually tried. I’m not going to judge something purely on the fact that it looks like something that needs to go in the trash instead of on a plate (ahem, cough…..kaiings. For y’all Americans out there, it’s basically the same thing as cracklins’).
So much about South African food is good. There’s much more good than bad. Another thing that impresses me about South African food is quality. Generally speaking, it’s excellent, though you’ll have to branch out of Spur and Wimpy’s to experience that. So without further ado:
Fruits & Veggies
South Africa does fruit like no other country. It is unreal how tasty the fruit is here, and it’s usually grown within the country. The key is buying in season. You can get some killer plums in the summer but don’t expect to enjoy them in the winter, if you can even find them. It’s winter now – go out and get yourself some Pink Lady apples and some naartjies (Americans – best I can figure, these are the same as clementines, only much cheaper).
Same for the veggies. Buy in season. Rejoice in the yumminess. I love the fact that I can get swiss chard year round here. In the US, very few people know about it, but here, it’s sold chopped and prepared in all grocery stores. I can even get raw peanuts in the shell (crucial for making boiled peanuts), and any Southerner worth their salt knows how important it is to have some boiled peanuts and Co-Cola in the summer.
Koeksisters & Melktert
Koeksisters (“cookie” in Afrikaans) – little crispy braids of sticky goodness. They’re basically a fried braid of dough covered in sugar syrup and eaten room temperature or cold. They’re very similar to Greek loukoumades. I first had koeksisters in Nacogdoches, Texas – of all darn places! My hubby and I knew a South African woman there who slaved away half the day making these babies for us. They were worth it. That being said, I highly doubt I will ever attempt making them.
Melktert (“milk tart”) is another fantastic traditional Afrikaans treat. It’s just what the name implies, a tart shell with a custard inside made predominately from milk. It tastes a similar to rice pudding, minus the rice bit and plus a pie crust.
Yes, believe it or not, I really like mieliepap. Mielie means corn, pap means porridge. Mieliepap is the closest I can find to grits here. Since I’m a true Southerner, you know I love my grits. Like grits at home, mieliepap is made to personal preference. Some people like it kinda mushy or thin; I prefer what’s known as krummelpap, or “crumbly porridge” (made with very little water). It can be prepared sweet for a breakfast porridge, or savory. I like mine crumbly and savory, with a cooked tomato/onion mixture on top.
This is a stew that is cooked outside on a fire, in a cast iron three-legged pot, or what I like to call “a little witch’s cauldron”. This concoction started with the Voortrekkers, a group of settlers who were originally from the Netherlands but decided to move to the South African Cape. Then they decided to up and leave to get away from the Brits. They moved to the interior of the country in covered wagons and took their stew along with them. Every day they would add a bit more of whatever to the leftovers of stew from the previous night. Potjie is usually a mix of some sort of meat, potatoes, vegetables, and broth- with a dash of alcohol thrown in for good measure (usually sherry). There’s nothing better on a cool fall or winter night than a potjie around the fire with good friends.
Roosterkoek and other South African breads
Something that goes very well with potjie is called roosterkoek, which means “grill cake”. It’s a ball of dough cooked on a grill over coals and then eaten piping hot. It’s nice to have around when you want to sop up the last remnants of potjie.
The fresh baked rolls and bread in this country are fantastic. Even most packaged, sliced sandwich breads are good. My husband is South African but went to university in Texas, and one of the complaints he had about American food was the lack of decent bread. I never really understood that until I moved here.
This one is an acquired taste for most. Snoek is an oily fish eaten predominately by poor people in the Cape (though not exclusively). It’s a type of mackerel. I’ve only had it in patés, but I took to it immediately. Since it’s intensely fishy – the kind of thing a cat would go crazy over- it’s only palatable for certain people. If you’re not into smelly fish, avoid it.
Now I know this one isn’t exclusive to South Africa. That being said, it is sold at almost all of the grocery stores here. Americans might know this as mango pickle. It’s a common Indian relish, and it comes in various spiciness levels. How to describe mango atchar? It’s nearly impossible. It’s made from chopped green mangoes and it’s not like Western pickles – it’s preserved in oil instead of brine. There are a whole bunch of spices that go in there too (mustard seed, fenugreek, etc). It’s very salty and somewhat tangy. I think I might need a 12 step program to get off the stuff! As we say in the South – “it’s slap ya Momma good”. Yeah, I don’t completely understand that either but I do know that the saying means something is really good.
What about you other expats out there (or native South Africans)? What are some of your favorite South African foods?