What to Eat in Cape Town, South Africa

Melktert

Melktert, or Milk Tart as it is known in English, is a well-known South African dessert originating from the Dutch settlers who landed in the Cape of Good Hope during the 17th Century. The traditional dessert is a creamy, sweet tart that consists of a crisp, short-crust pastry filled with a rich custard filling of milk, flour, sugar and eggs.

This sweet pie is a delicate dessert with a creamy, smooth texture. Once the tart has been baked it is dusted with cinnamon power and can be served warm or chilled. Over the years, many variations have been created and some recipes have incorporated the classic ingredients to create ice cream, pancakes, spring rolls, and even milk tart éclairs.

National Milk Tart Day, celebrated on 27 February, is an unofficial food holiday dedicated to this quintessential South African dessert that can be eaten and enjoyed on every occasion.

Potjiekos

Potjiekos

Translated to English, the literal meaning of potjiekos is “small-pot food”. The food is traditionally slow-cooked outdoors on a black, three-legged cast, iron pot. Potjiekos is prepared over a wood, charcoal or gas open fire and is a dish unique to South Africa and its heritage. The dish emerged with the Voortrekkers who came to South Africa with the Dutch oven.

Building a potjiekos consists of preparing layers of meat, typically beef, mutton or game such as venison as the first layer. The next layer includes vegetables – carrots, onions, cauliflower, green beans and other produce. The final layer is the starch, and in most dishes, potatoes. Before the lid of the pot is closed, other spices, water and a sauce which could consist of broth, liquid, stock and red wine is added.

Unlike stew, potjiekos should not be stirred during the cooking process and the pot should only be opened once the food has been cooked to ensure a flavorsome meal with tender meat. Cooking a potjiekos is a social event that gathers many people together.

Bobotie

Bobotie is considered to be the national dish of South Africa. It is a meat dish of Cape Malay heritage that was brought to South Africa during the 17th Century by slaves originating from present day Indonesia and Malaysia.

Bobotie is a sweet casserole or meatloaf, baked with minced meat, curry and bread soaked in milk which is then topped with a savory egg custard. Dried fruit, raisins, bay leaves and chutney give this dish its unique texture and taste. The unique combinations and scent-laden Malay spices make this meal one bursting with flavour and fragrance. Bobotie is claimed by many to have originated from the Indonesian dish called bobotok. The bright yellow bake is typically served with turmeric rice, sliced bananas or green vegetables and can be eaten for lunch or dinner especially on South Africa’s Heritage Day celebrated on the 24th of September each year.

Gatsby

The Gatsby is one of Cape Town’s most renowned dishes. The foot long sandwich, stuffed with many fillings, is an affordable, family-sized street food created to be shared with people. Gatsbys can be found all around Cape Town and the Western Cape Province however it is argued that the most iconic Gatsby can be bought at Super Fisheries takeout restaurant where the first one was originally made in 1976.

As the founding story goes, owner Rashaad Pandy was closing up the restaurant after a busy day when hungry customers came in search of a satisfying meal. Instead of turning them away as he did not have any dishes prepared, he sliced opened a Portuguese loaf and stuffed it with slap chips, polony and homemade vegetable pickle, which were the only ingredients he had leftover at the end of the day. Highly impressed by the creation, one of the guests described the sandwich as a “Gatsby smash” which was how its name was coined.

Creating a Gatsby follows no standard recipe and other than the main constituents of a long loaf stuffed with slap chips, meat, salad, sauce and achar (spicy mango pickle); the Gatsby can also be filled with other diverse fillings including calamari, cheese, fried egg, polony or sausages.

Biltong

Biltong is a type of cured, dehydrated meat that is typically made from beef however poultry, ostrich, kudu and other game varieties can also be found throughout the country. Preserving meat is an ancient tradition entrenched in many countries around the world. Before the invention of refrigerators and other cooling systems, meat was air-dried and salted to keep it lasting longer.

Biltong has a variety of recipes but most include lean beef, vinegar, coarse salt, ground pepper and coriander. Depending on the air drying and curing method, biltong can take from 24 hours to 10 days to complete. While biltong is often compared to its American counterpart, beef jerky, the two differ in their preparation processes and flavors.

This traditional snack can be purchased in most grocery stores however the best authentic biltong can be purchased from local butcheries. The meat snack can be eaten by itself especially as padkos (food taken with when on the road) and can also be sprinkled on salads and canapés, included in flavoring stews or added to sandwiches.

Malva Pudding

Described as “eating a handful of sugar and butter”, malva pudding is the epitome of traditional South African dessert. Malva pudding is sweet, sticky and moist. The decadent cake consists of butter, sugar, eggs, milk, flour; and the essential apricot jam or preserves which gives the pudding its distinctive taste. Once the pudding has baked, holes are poked throughout the cake and a warm sauce combining milk, butter, sugar and cream is poured over. The dessert is then left to rest for a few minutes whilst the cake absorbs the liquid. Malva pudding is served warm, usually during the winter months; with cream, custard or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

There are many legends explaining the origins of this dessert however one of the most common theories is that spongy cake originated from the Afrikaans phrase malvalekker which translates to marshmallow and is believed to have a similar texture to the dessert.

Chakalaka

Chakalaka is a vegetable relish with a sharp, tangy flavour that is both vegan friendly and gluten free. Originally created in the townships by mine workers, chakalaka has evolved into a dish with a large range of different combinations, consistencies and flavors, depending on who cooks it. The main ingredients for chakalaka typically consist of tomatoes, diced onions and beans.

The method of preparation involves first sautéing onions and then adding the tomatoes, carrots, chopped green peppers, beans and any other fresh produce to a heated stove. Spices, chilies, curry powder and tomato puree are then incorporated into the dish and a splash of water is added if the consistency is too dry. The relish is then left to simmer to form aromatic chutney. Chakalaka can be eaten hot as a meal or as condiment with rice, mealie pap or mashed potatoes. It can also be eaten cold as a salad. This dish is a staple at South African braais or barbeques.

Bunny Chow

Bunny Chow

While the etymology of bunny chow remains unclear, this street food, which does not consist of bunny or rabbit, is a classical one. Believed to have originated from indentured laborers who were brought from India to work on the sugar cane fields, the bunny chow is a hollowed bread loaf filled with spicy, fragrant curry and eaten with hands.

The dish resembles a container which workers possibly used to carry their lunch each day in the past. Bunny chow can be made with a quarter, half or full loaf of white bread. There are a selection of curry fillings to choose from including mutton, chicken or beef and a vegetarian option of sugar beans. Bunnies are typically served with a grated salad of carrots, onions, tomatoes and chilies and often eaten with a chilled soft drink like Coca-Cola. While bunny chows can be eaten throughout the country, the best bunnies are from the Eastern, coastal city of Durban which has the largest Indian community in South Africa.

Rooibos Tea

Rooibos tea comes from an indigenous South African plant called Aspalathus linearis. The plant only grows in the Cederberg Mountains in the Western Cape where arid conditions, known as the Fynbos biome allow for the cultivation of these shrubs. After harvesting, the leaves are dried and brewed to create the rich, red-brown herbal drink known as rooibos tea.

Rooibos is an Afrikaans term meaning “red bush” and explains the copper color the leaves turn after an oxidation process which results in the deep crimson beverage. This tea is a staple in every South African household that can be enjoyed as a warm drink or an ice tea and can also be included in dessert recipes.

Rooibos has an earth-like nutty flavor with a hint of sweet vanilla and a fresh smelling aroma. Variations of traditional rooibos tea with different flavors have been created to include spices, ginger, lemon and mixed berries. Rich in antioxidants, minerals and enzymes which are claimed to produce many health benefits, rooibos tea is caffeine-free and can be consumed at any time of the day. The tea can be drunk plain or with milk, honey, lemon and sugar.

Koeksister

Often described as a doughnut equivalent, the koeksister is a classic Afrikaans, pastry confectionery. The fried dough is derived from the Dutch word “koek”, meaning cake, and “sister” and is the epitome of South African sweetness. The original recipe for koeksisters arrived in South Africa with the Dutch Settlers who introduced a number of their cuisines to the countries they travelled to.

The dough of the sweet, sticky dessert is plaited or twisted before it deep fried in hot oil. Once fried, the hot koeksisters are immediately dipped into cold syrup consisting of sugar, water and cream of tartar that is absorbed by the dough. The combination of the variant temperatures allows a crispy sugar coating to form around the dough.

Koeksisters are often accompanied by afternoon tea and can be topped with cinnamon and lemon juice. The braided dough of these golden delights is sometimes considered to be a symbol of forgiveness and unity, of two separate parts uniting which is symbolic of South Africa’s divided past.

Koe’sister

Koe’sister

Koe’sister or koesister is considered to be a Cape Malay version of the traditional koeksister confectionery. It is a light, oval-shaped dough ball that is fried, dipped in syrup and rolled in desiccated coconut. Influenced by their Asian heritages from Malaysia and Indonesia, spices and coconut are an integral part of any Cape Malay dish.

Koesisters’ dough is flavored with cardamom, cinnamon, mixed spice and aniseed giving it a spicy and sweet taste. Naartjie peel, which give a zesty flavor, is also added to the yeasted dough that must spend an hour rising before it is fried. . Some recipes include mashed potatoes which give the sweet treat a fluffy, dumpling-like texture.

In typical Cape Malay style, koesisters are eaten on Sundays or on special Muslim occasions such as Ramadan or prayer evenings. These are best served warm, with milky tea or coffee and good company World Koesister Day, celebrated on the first Sunday of September, runs a competition thoughout Cape Town in search of the tastiest koesister.

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