South Africa is known as the rainbow nation for its mix of citizens from different cultures. That diversity’s also reflected in the nation’s unique (and tasty) cuisine. With all that variety, it’s tough selecting the most essential South African dining experiences.
Today’s rainbow cuisine began with the traditional foods of Africans native to the country. The colonial powers of the Netherlands and Great Britain contributed their culinary preferences. Then new residents from countries including France, Germany, India and Indonesia brought their own distinctive flavors.
Here are 7 South African dining experiences that pay homage to those influences. At the same time, they offer thoroughly modern cuisine you’ll remember long after your trip has ended.
Diving into a braii
South Africans adore a good braii – or barbecue. It’s a beloved part of the culture and one of the must-have South African dining experiences. It even has its own holiday: National Braai Day, on September 24.
The most popular braii meats are steaks; pork or lamb chops; and boerewors, a sausage of beef, lamb or pork. Boerewors, which means farmer sausage in Afrikaans, stems from a traditional Dutch staple. It’s seasoned with herbs like coriander, pepper, nutmeg, cloves and allspice. Another braii favorite is sosaties, or kebobs.
Side dishes are important ingredients for a successful braii. Pap is a corn dish like polenta. It’s served alongside many foods in the country. Chakalaka is a spicy relish of tomato, grated carrots, green peppers, sliced onion, vinegar, garlic and chilies. Salads, especially potato, are popular accompaniments, too.
Surprise dinner at The Tasting Room
In the historic wine town of Franschhoek, you’ll find a restaurant that some say is Africa’s best. Foodies in the know make a pilgrimage to The Tasting Room, located in Virtuoso property Le Quartier Francais. You don’t know in advance what will show up on the surprise dinner menu. That adds to the fun and makes this one of the can’t-miss South African dining experiences.
The leisurely eight-course dinner by Dutch-born chef Margot Janse will be one of the most memorable meals of your life. Each course is an artistic – and delicious – masterpiece. Janse takes fresh local ingredients and applies creative techniques to them. The result: a unique mix of flavors and textures. Her innovations encourage diners to get involved with their food. That might be lifting a loaf of cornbread from the can it was cooked in, or smashing a sugar globe to expose the dessert underneath.
The menu changes constantly. But the experience might include a beet mousse filled with green onions, dill and cucumber ice and tender South African antelope with wild grains, sorghum, rainbow carrots and celeriac puree. Dessert could be a baobab mousse cake with coconut, honeybush tea and caramel. Whatever’s on the menu will be impressive.
Snacking like the locals
When South Africans head to the pub or watch a rugby game, they crave two meaty snacks to accompany their beverages.
Biltong is a cured meat. It’s flavored with ingredients such as pepper, coriander, brown sugar and vinegar. Biltong is like jerky, but with thicker slices of meat and different ingredients. Plus it’s never smoked – only air-dried.
Biltong is embedded in the country’s history. It was a mainstay of the Boers during their Great Trek into Africa’s interior in the 1830s. Almost two hundred years later, the snack is so popular that entire stores are dedicated to it.
Biltong is typically made with beef. Feeling adventurous? Try ostrich, chicken, fish or game varieties. And the pub isn’t the only dining establishment featuring it. South African chefs are getting creative with biltong. You might see it in a sandwich, topping a burger and inside savory cream puffs. You can even sample biltong-flavored potato chips.
The other snack staple is droewors. The air-dried beef sausage is usually spiced with similar seasonings as boerewors, although you can find everything from green chili to spicy peri peri varieties. Like biltong, it doesn’t need refrigeration because it’s been dried. Also like biltong, adventurous types can try droewors crafted from different meats, including venison and ostrich.
High tea at Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel
Cape Town’s grande dame of a hotel will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. It’s gracious, historic and elegant. Its famed British-influenced high tea service is one of the South African dining experiences you won’t want to miss.
Take your time choosing a beverage from an extensive tea menu with selections from all over Africa and Asia. One fine option: the signature Mount Nelson Tea, blended from six varieties of tea including Darjeeling, Kenya, Assam, Keemun, Yunnan and Ceylon. The special ingredient? Rose petals from the hotel’s garden.
Then a server will bring you plates of savory treats on a tiered stand. Enjoy everything from finger sandwiches with smoked salmon and egg salad to mini-quiches to mushroom empanadas. Go ahead and have seconds when they’re offered.
Afterwards, proceed to the dessert table. Fill your plate with universally loved treats such as chocolate cake and lemon meringue. Be sure to try the South African sweets on display. Melktert is a pie with a creamy milk, sugar and egg filling. Koeksisters are South African donuts. They’re so cherished that competitions have been held to find the country’s best version.
Sampling South African game
South African’s wildlife is abundant and varied. It’s easy to find game offerings (mostly farm-raised) on restaurant menus or at markets.
Favorites include ostrich, wildebeest, crocodile and warthog. As well, several species of antelopes like eland, springbok, gemsbok, kudu and impala are popular. Restaurants are putting their own spin on game offerings, including modern creations such as ostrich carpaccio.
Elegant dining aboard the Blue Train
To ride the Blue Train is to be transported into the golden age of rail travel. The elegance of that era is captured in the dining experiences on board. During your overnight journey between Cape Town and Pretoria, you will enjoy a memorable breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and formal dinner.
Both lunch and dinner are delicious multi-course feasts, prepared in the train’s tiny kitchen. Expect local products, from Karoo lamb, ostrich and venison to Knysna oysters. Creations such as cauliflower and truffle soup, vegetable tempura, springbok with fresh vegetables, and a flourless chocolate cake might be on the menu. Abundant South African wines accompany meals. All is beautifully presented: crisp white linens, delicate crystal, silver service and fine china.
After the elaborate dinner, enjoy a cognac and cigar (if you wish) in the wood-paneled club car before retiring for the night. You’ll have just enough time to digest before breakfast.
Tasting Asian-inspired cuisine
Several national favorites derive from the flavors brought to South Africa from Asian arrivals over the years.
One of the most beloved South African dining experiences is bobotie. It’s a delicious creation of ground meat, spices and raisins baked with a savory custard topping and served with rice and chutney. The meat is usually beef or lamb, but you’ll see creative takes offering everything from ostrich to venison. It’s described as a South African meat loaf or shepherd’s pie, but it’s in a class by itself.
Bobotie has been evolving since its origins in the early 1600s. Indonesian slaves (who spoke the Malay language) brought their cooking with them when they arrived in South Africa. Dutch settlers tweaked bobotie to their liking. In the mid-1800s, Indian arrivals added curry to the mix.
Bobotie is one core dish in Cape Malay cuisine. The cooking style is a uniquely South African blend of Asian dishes and other influences. Another Cape Malay favorite is bredie, a long-cooked stew with lamb or other meat and vegetables. Tomato bredie is a popular variation, although you’ll find versions starring vegetables such as green beans, pumpkin and cabbage. Its aromatic ingredients can include chili powder, paprika, garlic, curry, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and herbs.
One of South Africa’s favorite street foods draws on Indian influences. Bunny chow is a hollowed-out bread loaf filled with curried meat, usually mutton, lamb or chicken. Not rabbit, despite the name. There’s a meatless version with kidney beans, too. You eat it with your hands, tearing the bread and scooping the curry with it. Hungry? Order a full loaf. Just want a snack? Get a half or quarter loaf.
Another Indian snack adored by South Africans is samosas. They’re fried or baked pastries with spiced fillings. When you bite into the typically triangular treat, you might find potatoes, peas, carrot and onions. Meat varieties come with ground beef, lamb or chicken.
Want one (or more) of these South African dining experiences?
Did these experiences whet your appetite for a trip to the rainbow nation? If so, Virtuoso has a South Africa travel specialist ready to help you plan your journey. Seeing the country is an amazing bucket-list trip. And it’s even more outstanding with these South African dining experiences.