I had few expectations about food when I was planning my trip to South Africa. I knew a little about South African cuisine, from having visited a couple of restaurants in the East Coast. But otherwise, I was pretty open.
To start with, there is no one South African cuisine. It’s too diverse of a country, with Africaans, English, Malay, Indian and dozens of African indigenous cultures all living together. The only generalization I could make it that it’s a heavily meat-based food culture, with “braai” barbecue being found everywhere.
Western cuisine dominates, unfortunately. KFC, hamburgers, and pizza are omnipresent, even in remote towns. And tourist spots, to my friend Hanah’s dismay, serve the lowest common denominator of Western fast food.
That aside, we ate some incredibly awesome meals in South Africa, and for a fraction of the cost of what it would have been back home. Cape Town in particular is foodie heaven, with amazing cuisine from all over the globe throughout the city.
Our favorite meal in SA was at a small European bistro called “La Tete” in Cape Town. They featured a carefully curated menu of off beat parts of animals, presented in a refined but not pretentious way. The star for me was perfectly roasted crispy pig cheeks that every Filipino would have cried over.
The lambs brains on toast were incredibly rich and flavorful, like bone marrow.
And the ox heart was beautifully done. We didn’t want to leave.
Johannesburg has some great food as well. We had lovely meals in the Maboneng and Melville areas in particular.
In a small cafe in Melville called “Mamasan,” we had our second favorite meal. They feature a modern fusion of European, Malay and African food that was unique and inspired. A starter of disks of mashed pumpkin layered with lamb and a light creme was a whimsical savory dessert that we loved.
This was followed by a fun take on chicken and waffles, done with south asian and east asian spices.
And a vegetarian buboti was a nicely spiced casserole of eggplant, zucchini, and other nice veggies, topped with a crumbly mild cheese.
Our third favorite meal was a feast we shared with friends at Africa Cafe in Cape Town. Yes, its touristic and expensive, but totally worth it. At Africa Cafe, you are presented a set menu of sixteen amazing dishes that are put our family style at your table for everyone to share. Whether you are an omnivore or a vegan, you will find something to enjoy.
They feature dishes from throughout Africa, from Ethiopia to Zambia like Soweto Chakalaka and Moroccan lamb stew. You can eat as much of it as you want, they will happily bring you more. We had a blast there.
While in the bush in Kruger National Park, I knew that food was likely going to be pretty basic. Unfortunately I was not feeling well during our actual outdoor braai. But honestly the meat did not impress me very much.
The most memorable meal in the bush was a plate of Mopane worms we shared with locals and tourists. One of the other visitors Alex had heard that Mopane worms was a delicacy in the area, so he convinced the kitchen cooks to prepare some for us.
Now I’ve eaten worms before, no problem. You fry almost anything in nice spices and I’ll probably eat it. Mopane worms are, well, different. First of all, they aren’t worms, they are large caterpillars. They eventually become beautiful emperor butterflies – unless you eat them first. Rich in protein, they are widely consumed in several African countries.
Our dish of Mopane worms was stewed in rich spices for a long time, and then served with pap, the local mush you find everywhere in South Africa. The consistency is quite chewy with a softer middle. I was only able to eat 4-5 of them. I think I did the best at our table, including one of the local white South Africans. Several of the South Africans I talked to later admitted it wasn’t their favorite dish. So yeah, I can’t recommend Mopane worms.
I’m a big coffee nerd, as most people know. I actually came to SA with my full coffee kit taking up a lot of space in my one bag. But I hardly used it. Coffee culture is quite developed in Cape Town, with several local roasters and coffee shops. We went to Truth Coffee, a huge steampunk-themed emporium to coffee in the middle of the city. It’s a bit cheesy, but the coffee they roast and serve is legit. Joburg also had its share of bougie coffee joints, particularly in Maboneng.
Our favorite South African snack was biltong, the local version of beef jerky. Tasty, healthy, and a good source of quick protein when out in the bush. The dried version is fine, but the best kind is freshly grated biltong from a butcher. There are various kinds, from beef to ostrich and antelope.
I also enjoyed rusk, a hard biscuit best eaten after dipping in a cup of hot tea or coffee. Very fortifying before a long hike. There are many varieties, both sweet and savory.
In Joburg, I encountered Portuguese roast chicken for the first time, with that spicy, tangy peri-peri sauce. I’m adding it to my list of favorite roast chicken recipes. Our first night there, we were dead on our feet. But we had a fun meal in an African cafe watching a live band play Afro-beat while munching on a perfectly roasted whole chicken. Hanah wasn’t even hungry, but kept munching on the bones after I was finished.
There were lots of other awesome things we ate and drank in South Africa that I don’t have time to write about. A foodie will have no trouble finding something wonderful to try in SA!