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The Melting Pot

Claire Alderton is member of CIRCUS Community Foodie Group on Facebook and owner of Bokkie, South African street food from Aylesbury. Here she talks us through the origins of the distinctive cuisine that has come to be affectionately known as ‘The Melting Pot.’

9 provinces, 11 official languages. But what is official South African Cuisine?

The country as well as the food has a long complex history and because of this there came this rich heritage of culinary customs and recipes of diverse origins.

South Africa was coined as the Rainbow Nation by Desmond Tutu and later became Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation.

To understand the cuisine, you need to understand the history and how it got the term ‘The Melting Pot’.

So, let’s go way back….

The Dutch landed in the Cape in 1652 with orders to establish a farm to provide fresh vegetables and meat to the crews on the ships round the Cape. The Dutch East India Company needed a place to get food and drink for the ships travelling from Europe to the East.

Holland ruled for approximately 150 years and Dutch cuisine had a big influence on South African cooking. Rice, gentle spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg and deep- frying techniques are widely used today especially for Vetkoek or Amagwinya in Zulu, a traditional fried bread still popular today that is served with curried mince, apricot jam or even syrup. Meat, such as Frikadelle, is Dutch in origin.

Overtime South African cooking has become a blend of Eastern and Western Food. Slaves were brought from Java and Indonesia in 1667. Cape Malay slaves, who were excellent cooks, brought a unique flavour and style. An exciting mix of spice, condiments and multi flavoured masalas.

The early German settlers brought the legacy Boerewors (translated means Farmers Sausage). This is widely eaten everywhere today on a braai on the streets as a Boerie Roll.

French Huguenots then came in 1688 -1690 and their contribution, alongside jams and preserves, were the vines in the Cape for the winemaking that many of us are still loving and enjoying today with South Africa exporting 320 million litres in 2019.

Bring on the BRAAI!

The Nomad farmer which were mainly Dutch, German and French immigrants had to hunt to survive. They would roast meat on open fires called ‘braaivlies’. Some ate griddlecakes alongside the meat and those that came into contact with black tribes during their travels were introduced to the staple food of Africa Mealie Meal Porridge “Pap”. South Africans from the Cape would usually prefer a grilled onion, cheese & tomato sandwich on the braai called ‘braaibroodtjies’ and those from the Transvaal/Natal and Orange Free state (now known as Gauteng/KwaZulu-Natal/Free State) would more commonly have Pap with their braai.

Today, Braaivlies or Braai is less a cuisine and more of a ritual, and like many rituals it’s something you don’t really do on your own, it’s a form of communion and bonding. Copious amounts of beer and wine are an essential ingredient for people who stand or sit around for hours before the food is served. Just like back then, a braai is not complete without Pap or a braaibroodtjies alongside well-seasoned, tenderised meats, salads and Chakalaka.

One Pot Stews

Back then the trekkers could not transport many pots on their journey, so they needed one pot food which is where Potjiekos was born out of necessity. It is a cast iron pot filled with meat, starch and vegetables, cooked on coals with a tight-fitting lid to allow the juices and steam to gently tenderise even the toughest of meats, creating its own gravy within the pot. Still thoroughly enjoyed today and some of the most popular are Lamb, Oxtail or Chicken.

In the 1700’s the British assumed rulership and the British Empire played a huge rule in sending labourers to sugar cane plantations as far away as Trinidad and South Africa’s Natal. A merchant class soon followed and by the late 19th century there was a huge Indian population in South Africa. Most famously a young lawyer Mohandas K Gandhi.

Indian Influence…

No longer in their homeland, traditions and flavours that had never mixed before, began a fusion. The availability or lack of some spices created an “Indian cuisine” in South Africa that visitors noticed was different from what they knew back home in India. Distinctly the Durban Curry, is hotter and tangier, with that distinctive red colour, yet delicious. The Malay variety found in Cape town is very different, it is not as hot and is often sweeter. Such as our Cape Malay Chicken and Apricot Curry.

Bunny chow is the ultimate South African Street Food. A loaf of bread which is hollowed out and then filled with Curry. It is best to be eaten with the fingers, tearing pieces off the bread to scoop out the curry. It’s an extraordinary street food withs origins that lay in the arcana of South Africa’s old segregationist laws and migrant-labour system.

The origin of the stories can be compared to the stories of the UK’s favourite dish, the Chicken Tikka Masala. One theory is that the forbidding of Indian grocers from selling hot meals to African migrant workers prompted them to disguise a curry as a permissible loaf of bread. Another is that it was invented simply as a takeout vessel so an Indian restauranteur could sell from the back door to people classed as black or coloured who were legally barred from entering. A street food that came about due to apartheid laws!!

Bunny chows are a street food standard in Jo’burg - Durban reflecting those cities with a substantial Indian population. Cape Town’s Indian population is tiny, but the city’s ethnic population has its own street food in the form of a Salomie. No better way to consume a Malay curry than inside a Salomie’s flaky buttery Malay roti. Rolled up like a burrito and eaten with one hand.

Portugese Peri Peri

Once the gold and diamonds were discovered more people flocked to South Africa bringing their foods and spices with them. Such as the Portuguese who added Peri Peri to South African flavours. Peri Peri also Pilipili in Swahili means ‘pepper pepper’. If you weren’t aware, Nando’s did not invent Peri Peri, it started in 1980’s in Johannesburg, named after cofounder Fernando Duarte.

Variations of the sauce have been around since the Portuguese settlers in Africa came across the ingredient – an African bird’s eye chilli – and made a marinade with garlic, red wine vinegar, paprika and other European imports. Five hundred years on, the exact origins of this recipe are still debated as both Portuguese - Angolans and Portuguese-Mozambicans claim to have created the special mix. Regardless, the recipe remains a celebration of the cultural legacy and culinary fusions of the region.

For South Africans peri-peri chicken is not only a staple dish, it’s a national icon.

“Peri-peri chicken is South African in my opinion,” South African chef Duncan Welgemoed contests. “It has its cultural resonance out of Portugal and Mozambique, but it’s done to the extreme by South Africans.

There are many dishes iconic to South Africa, there is not one dish that you could put your finger on that sums up South Africa, there are many. I have touched on a few and there are some firm favourites such as the Bunny chow, Vetkoek, Durban Chicken and Malay Curries, Braai, Boerewors, Potjikos and Peri Peri. There are also others such as Bobotie, Samoosa, Koeksister, Biltong, Samp and Beans and many, many more.

Blend of Cultures & Cuisines

So, to sum it up South African cuisine is a blend of European, Asian and African cultures and traditions steeped in history. The aromatic spicy flavours of the Indian and Portuguese. Rich light French cuisine, the sweet and spicy flavours of Malaysian food, hearty comfort foods from German and Dutch combined with African flavours and staple foods makes it a unique culinary delight!

One thing that runs through all of this is that the cuisine is very much a sharing food. Whether it is just a quick get together or a celebration, you’ll often find a gathering of people creating a sense of togetherness and enjoyment whilst enjoying amazing food!

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