When I arrived in South Africa way back in 2000, I took it upon myself to learn about the cuisine of my newly adopted home, so of course I set about interrogating my new-found friends. I would ask, “What is South African food?” For the most part people would immediately say, “A braai!”. Okay, but that’s a barbeque, not really a cuisine. Lets try this again, “What do you braai that makes it South African?”. “Wors!” would come the answer. Okay, that’s a sausage, again not really a stand-alone cuisine. Let’s try a different tack, “When you’re not braaing sausages, what else do you like to eat?”. “Sushi!”.
For a long while I struggled to get a real sense of South Africa’s culinary identity. Given its past struggles, surely this disparately diverse nation found some sort of cultural common ground through its food? Then it hit me, ask the one person whose tastes were uncluttered by the latest food fads, whose tastes stilled lingered in the 80s; before the outside world confused the collective South African palette. Much to my dismay, I turned to my flavour’phobic partner for insight into my South African food conundrum. And so I asked, “What is South African food to you?”. The response was almost instant, “A braai…but without any of that yucky basting sauce”. Okay, not a good start but I wasn’t going to stumble at the first hurdle. Time for a different angle. “What did you like to eat when you were a child?”. “Oooh, my Aunt in Milnerton made the most delicious tomato bredie, she put lots of sugar in it”. Finally I was getting somewhere, but he wasn’t finished, “Tomato bredie with rice. Not your funny foreign rice, normal Tastic rice”. Okay thanks for that, now shut up about tomato bredie. “What else did you like to eat?”, I ventured. “Sweet potato, glazed sweet potato. With tomato bredie and rice!”. Anything else? “Oh, and bobotie…and frikkadels, with glazed sweet potato…and pumpkin fritters with cinnamon sugar! And there’s melktert and malva pudding, hmm malva pudding”. Okay, I knew he had a sweet tooth, but at this point I was amazed he had any teeth left! Deciding that I had better wrap this up I asked, “Do most South Africans like these dishes too?”. “I guess so, everyone loves malva pudding, especially with cold custard!”. Cold custard?!? I had delved enough for one day.
Armed with my new found in-sight, I set about searching out these exotic sounding dishes but they proved elusive, forgotten in amongst the pseudo-Mediterranean fare and generic offerings that cluttered the local menus of the time. Sure, bobotie was relatively commonplace, as was melktert and malva pudding, but these felt like culinary tokenism, a lazy nod to the flavours of the past. Undeterred, I took it upon myself to learn to cook the dishes that were so dear to my partner’s heart, but I gave up trying to answer the question of what South African food was. A country’s food culture is something that must be born from the current tastes of its people, it is not something that can be defined by the antiquated tastes of a passing generation. In the past when I had visitors from overseas they usually ask me to cook them an authentic South African meal which typically resulted in the obligatory bobotie and malva pudding. Afterwards my friends inevitable ask the question, “So this is South African food, what else is there?”. Defeated, my stock answer had become, “They like to braai”.
However, as the years rolled by and my glimpses into the South African psyche expanded, I discovered that these elusive dishes had been there all along, but I had been looking in the wrong places. The food I had been searching for wasn’t the sort you’d order at a restaurant, it was food that was made for you by the people who loved you the most, your family – it was huiskos. I had wrongly assumed that South Africans would want to eat the same food they loved, the food that they would feed their families, when they went out to restaurants to eat but they don’t. I asked a friend once about this South African culinary bi-polarism and her response was simple, “Hell, why would I want to eat my food when I can go out and order sushi!”. Why, indeed. After that, I stopped looking for local cuisine on the menus of fancy restaurants because real South African food can only be found where is belongs, at home…or on a braai.
If you would like to view my South African recipes, please follow this link: https://themuddledpantry.wordpress.com/category/south-african/