Anthropology: Evidence of South Africa’s Diverse Culture Through Its Cuisine

Shot of a group of young friends having a dinner party outdoors
Shot of a group of young friends having a dinner party outdoors; photo credit:

South Africa, also known as RSA, is renowned for being a rainbow nation. It is recognised as such because of its wide range of ethnicities all over the country. Most of this is the result of Apartheid and colonization. South Africa consists roughly of 76.4% Black South Africans, 9.1% White South Africans, 8.9% Coloured South Africans, 2.5% Indian South Africans, and 0.5% other ethnicities. Furthermore, within these ethnicities lie many diverse cultures and religions largely embraced by one another. These cultures include Zulu, Tswana, Xhosa, Afrikaner, Hindu, Ndebele, and Cape Malay, among many others. A great example of this can be explained and witnessed through South African cuisine.

Brief Introduction to South African Culture

Before diving into South African cuisine, it’s important to understand South African culture and its roots.


South Africa originally consisted of its black South Africans, these mostly being the indigenous Khoisan, Xhosa, Zulu, Basotho, Ndebele, and more. In the mid-1600s, European colonization began, starting with a Dutch trading company. This European power began their domination in Cape Town as the Dutch East India Company needed a place to resupply ships travelling to and from the Dutch colonies in Indonesia. Consequently, Dutch farmers began settling in the Cape. They were known as the Afrikaners.

Soon they were in need of more labourers. As a result, they captured people from East Africa, East Indies, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Mozambique, and enslaved them. Over 60,000 people were either brought or born into slavery in the Cape Colony. The descendants of these slaves were classified as coloureds. Many European settlers, including Germans, began moving to the Cape from then. In the late 1700s, the British arrived, encouraging many of their people to settle in the Cape as well.

The Great Trek

As a result, the Afrikaners decided to branch out further, discovering more parts of South Africa for them to settle in. This was known as “The Great Trek”. The Xhosa, Zulu, Basotho, Ndebele, and the Bapedi already inhabited these places. However, it did not stop the Afrikaners and only more colonization occurred. The British also brought in more indentured labourers from India into Natal, as well as Indian artisans and merchants. They became the forebearers of South Africa’s Indian population.

The Beginning of a Free South Africa

While this was a very painful time for the original inhabitants and slaves in South Africa, one thing remains true: these are the events that have shaped the foundation of South Africa and its culture. After many years of strife and struggle, the oppressed people of South Africa would become free and South Africa would be known as a rainbow nation. All cultures and ethnicities would become accepting of one another and adapt to the different cultural foods and celebrations, creating a better future for all its inhabitants.


South African cuisine is often characterized by its origin, whether Dutch, Afrikaner, Zulu, Xhosa, among many more. Apartheid and the colonization of South Africa was a painful period. However, the cuisine that has traveled through all those decades of pain has brought a lot of joy and happiness to their respective cultures and can be enjoyed even now. Here’s a look into some of these cultural foods.


Boerewors; photo credit: Jtfnel,
Boerewors; photo credit: Jtfnel,

Boerewors is a traditional South African sausage. The word derives from the Afrikaans and Dutch word boere meaning “farmers” and wors meaning “sausage”. Although this sausage may look like any other sausage, boerewors needs to be made in a distinct way for it to be classified as such.

Traditionally, it should consist of 90% meat and 10% spices. Most of the meat blend should contain roughly ground beef and may contain pork or lamb for flavour and consistency. The sausage also should not contain over 30% fat. South Africans traditionally braai (barbeque) boerewors over a fire. While the food is of Afrikaner origin, the juicy and flavourful sausage is thoroughly enjoyed by most citizens of South Africa.

The French Huguenots brought a similar sausage to South Africa, made with minced beef and fat. This inspired the creation of the boerewors. The sausage was then flavoured with spices like coriander seeds, cloves and nutmeg – brought to South Africa by the Cape Malay community. This was the start of the juicy boerewors we know today.

Bunny Chow

Bunny Chow; photo credit: Trushka Soni
Bunny Chow; photo credit: Trushka Soni

Bunny chow is a meal created by the immigrant Indian community of South Africa. It is a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with spicy curry, consisting of either some type of meat or vegetarian beans.

This is a dish that Indian communities outside of South Africa are unfamiliar with. During Apartheid, labourers and slaves generally weren’t allowed to eat in certain restaurants. Thus, they were served Bunny Chows as a form of travel lunch in the Natal area of Durban. The bread served as a holder for the curry. This was so that there was nothing that needed to be returned when they finished. Indian cooks weren’t in constant supply of the spices from India and, as a result, there is a distinct difference in the taste of South Africa’s Indian cuisine in comparison to India’s cuisine.

South Africa’s Indian cuisine is a combination of two disparate cultures, although coming out of difficult circumstances, creates happiness in the people of South Africa even today through its exquisite taste.


Vetkoek; photo credit:
Vetkoek; photo credit:

Vetkoek or Amagwinya derives from two separate cultures but essentially are one and the same. Vetkoek (term used in Afrikaans culture) or amagwinya (term used in Zulu culture) is a ball of dough deep-fried in oil until golden brown. This bread is crispy on the outside and soft and spongy on the inside. It is usually filled with a variety of sweet and savoury fillings. These include curried mince, or even apricot jam, butter, or cheese.

Vetkoek (pronounced “fet cook”) directly translates to “fat cake”. This refers to the fact that the bread is fried instead of baked. The bread first came to fruition during the Great Trek when the Dutch were mostly travelling. They found that frying the bread was much faster and easier than baking the bread. It also lasted a lot longer than regular bread.

Vetkoek can be enjoyed either as a snack or a meal to be eaten at any time of the day. The delicious snack can be compared to the Dutch “oliebollen”, which is a sweet fried bread containing raisins.

Chakalaka and Pap

Chakalaka and pap; photo credit:
Chakalaka and pap; photo credit:

Chakalaka is a colourful dish consisting mainly of onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, carrots, curry, chilis, and sometimes even beans. It is served with mealie pap – a corn-based porridge. This soaks up all these juices and makes an absolutely delicious and filling combination.

Chakalaka first came about when miners worked in the goldmines of Johannesburg. The miners would cook a mixture of canned produce to create a nourishing and tasty meal to fuel a hard day’s work. At a later stage, Mozambican miners began adding chilli to the dish – an essential ingredient to Chakalaka today. This was thanks to Portuguese influences in Mozambique. Later on, the dish gained a Cape Malay or Indian influence when the recipe started including curry paste or curry powder. Other spices they would add include chilli powder, peri-peri, white pepper, ginger, garlic, fresh parsley, fresh coriander, and fresh thyme.

The meatless dish is traditionally paired with mealie pap. However, it is also commonly paired with grilled meats or rice, and sometimes it serves as a relish to curry or stew. This versatile dish contains many cultural influences and is enjoyed by all cultures of South Africa.


Bobotie; photo credit: DinnerDiary,
Bobotie; photo credit: DinnerDiary,

Bobotie is a sweet and spicy minced meat dish covered with a creamy egg custard mixture. It is considered as South Africa’s national cuisine and celebrates the heritage of the Cape Malay community.

The Cape Malay are the descendants of Juvanese slaves and refugees from Indonesia. They form part of the coloured community in South Africa and reside mainly in Cape Town. The sweet and spicy dish was created when the Dutch settlers brought these Juvanese slaves and refugees from Indonesia.

The community adopted and developed the recipe, using their own unique spices and ingredients. Another version of the story suggests that the Dutch adopted the recipe from one of their colonies in Asia and the Cape Malay made the recipe their own. Regardless, the recipe unites both Afrikaans and Cape Malay culture as their culinary traditions meet in one national dish.

Bobotie mainly consists of minced meat with spices such as curry powder, turmeric, ground cinnamon, ground cumin, salt, pepper and a dried herb mix, among many other ingredients. Raisins are added to this mixture to give it a vibrant fruity flavour. This contrasts well with the slightly spiced taste and aroma of the dish. An egg and milk mixture is used to form a creamy egg custard that gets poured over the minced meat. The egg mixture is then topped with bay leaves, to give it flavour, before popping it into the oven. This dish is usually served with yellow rice and a tomato sambal.

Milk Tart/Melktert

Milk tart; photo credit: Mandy Mortimer, flickr
Milk tart; photo credit: Mandy Mortimer,

If there’s one thing firmly ingrained in Afrikaans culture, it’s milk tart or, as said in Afrikaans, “melktert”. Although, interestingly enough, the milk tart South Africa knows today is a combination of both Dutch heritage and Cape Malay influence.

The Dutch settlers brought a Mattentaart recipe to the Cape. This is a Dutch-flemish curd-type cake, in which a buttermilk custard is wrapped in puff pastry. It’s likely that the milk tart is the product of the different or limited ingredients South Africa had at the time. The cinnamon that is sprinkled atop the milk tart is of Cape Malay influence. It is believed that many of the spices used in South Africa today were brought by the Cape Malay community from Indonesia.

Malva Pudding

Malva pudding; photo credit:
Malva pudding; photo credit:

Malva pudding is a spongy, moist sweet cake-like dessert served hot with either custard or ice cream. It is enjoyed by all of South Africa and served in many restaurants, as a result. This pudding is believed to be of Dutch origin. The dessert is named “malva” after the Afrikaans word “malvalekker”, which means marshmallow. It acquired this name because the texture is like that of a marshmallow.


Biltong; photo credit: Arwel Hughes,
Biltong; photo credit: Arwel Hughes,

Biltong is a variety of dried and spiced cured meat originating in South Africa. Residents find this snack irresistible. The word biltong derives from the Dutch words “bil” meaning “rump” and “tong” meaning “strip or tongue”.

The indigenous Khoikhoi were the creators of this chewy and tasty snack. They preserved meat by slicing it into strips, curing it with salt and then hanging them to dry. When the European settlers arrived, they improved the curing process by using vinegar and saltpetre and adding spices such as coriander, pepper and cloves.


Potjiekos; photo credit:
Potjiekos; photo credit:

Potjiekos is a dish and method of making food many South Africans enjoy, even if it takes hours to make, as the process is always worth it in the end. The dish consists of meat and a variety of vegetables, essentially cooked in a round cast-iron pot over open hot coals.

The Dutch Hutspot inspired the creation of Potjiekos. Hutspot is a dish cooked in the annual remembrance of the Seige of Leiden. The Hutspot recipe originates from the cooked bits of vegetables left by Spanish soldiers that the hungry Leideners then ate. This dish became a symbol of their victory.

When the Dutch settlers arrived in the Cape, they still used these cast-iron pots since they were ideal at the time. The pot retained heat very well and kept food simmering for hours on end, resulting in flavour-rich and tender stews.


Both South Africa’s koesisters and koeksisters, although sounding the same, are two distinctly different treats but still nationwide favourites.

Cape Malay koesisters; photo credit:
Cape Malay koesisters; photo credit:

Koesisters are a Cape Malay delicacy. An oval shaped dough ball, with a doughnut-like texture and flavoured with spices. The delicacy is fried in oil briefly before being soaked in syrup and rolled in coconut. In Cape Malay culture, koesisters are traditionally eaten on Sundays. It is also enjoyed on special occasions to bring even more sweetness to the event. The delicious Cape Malay treat goes all the way back to its Indonesian roots. This is most apparent through the spices incorporated into the dough – ranging from aniseed, cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger, to dried tangerine skin powder.

Koeksisters; photo credit: Biltong Plus,
Koeksisters; photo credit: Biltong Plus,

Koeksisters are a sweet treat of Afrikaner heritage. It can be described as a plaited doughnut – with a golden and crispy outside and a soft syrupy inside. The dough braids are first deep fried in hot oil. It is then dipped into ice-cold syrup to gain its characteristic taste and texture. While its origin is not quite clear, it is believed to have originated from a recipe the Dutch settlers brought to the Cape in the 17th century.

In Orania, 1995, the koeksisters became a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation. After becoming president, Nelson Mandela traveled there to have afternoon tea with Mrs. Betsie Verwoerd, widow of the former Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd. The former Prime Minister implemented many racist policies which expanded the Apartheid system, and he was responsible for Mandela’s imprisonment. On that day, Mrs. Verwoerd served koeksisters with the tea as the two reconciled.

The situation perfectly described that Mandela was not just speaking about forgiveness and reconciliation but acting on it.

Cultural Development of South Africa Today

People sitting around a fire; photo credit:
People sitting around a fire; photo credit:

Spend an evening in South Africa and you’ll find, at certain events, adults of different cultures and ethnicities conversing and laughing together under the starry sky as they braai (grill) meat and boerewors and prepare Chakalaka. String lights illuminate the braai stands and tables and bright green grass. The adults’ children are sitting on the grass, giggling while eating their koeksisters and biltong. In the background you’ll hear an upbeat Afrikaans song finish and switch to an infamous African song that the children can’t help but want to get up and dance to. The parents have started cheering them on already and taking videos, broad smiles painted across all the faces present.

This is the life of South Africans today.

Out of the painful past, emerged a strong and united nation. While the country does have its problems, the people of South Africa continue to move forward with determined minds and unwavering faith. South Africa’s cultures are all intertwined, no matter the ethnicities or individual cultures. This much is at least proven in their cuisine, as the citizens enjoy all the foods of South Africa and are eager to try new recipes.

No matter how hard a time may be, delicious foods can always bring about happiness. In conclusion, the ability of South Africans to accept and appreciate the different cultures around them is what allows South Africa to share one entire culture: South African culture.


Piotrowski, A. (2019) “Colonialism, Apartheid, and Democracy: South Africa’s Historical Implications on the Land Reform Debate”

Rawson. “Proudly South African Dishes”

Sabine. (04/03/2021) “South African Chakalaka Recipe”

Sabine. (06/02/2021) “South African Bobotie”

Biller, H. (22/09/2019) “What’s the difference between a koeksister & a koesister?”

Daily Dish. (17/09/2019) “Traditional South African Foods – The Koeksister”

Farming Portal. (01/09/2020) “History of Biltong”

Claassens, C. “A Brief History of Potjiekos, South Africa’s Favorite Stew”

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