Food & Drink

What the hell is South African food? Here're the 8 dishes you need to know

chicken livers peri peri
Ruen Ellis

South Africa's geographic location is fairly easy to pin down due to its name and all, but its cuisine is a different story. With so many cultures in the mix, the country offers delectably diverse food that's mainly meat-based and entirely delicious. Since things can get a little tricky when pinpointing what exactly South African food really entails, we enlisted South Africans Mark Henegan, owner, and Ruen Ellis, community and marketing manager, of Brooklyn's Madiba, to help us put together this handy guide of need-to-know dishes.

Bunny Chow
What it is: A hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with curry.
What's the deal: SA's answer to the bread bowl (watch your back, Panera), this dish originated in the Durban Indian community during the time of apartheid. People of color were barred from certain restaurants and cafes, so they began ordering take-out meals from the sides or backdoors of these eateries. Roti, a popular dish at the time, was difficult to eat and fell apart easily, so Indian restaurant owners started using loaves of bread as take-out containers for curries. There's no actual bunny in the chow, which is typically made with chicken, lamb, vegetables, or mutton and is lightly spiced. The name is just a take on the word 'Bania', an Indian merchant caste that peddled the curries. Oh, and you don't use utensils to eat it, but forks are overrated anyways.

Biltong
What it is: Cured, salted, and dried beef tenderloin.
What's the deal: An Afrikaner (the white population from Dutch origin) contribution, this cured meat is most often made from beef, but other gamey offerings like venison, ostrich, and springbok are frequently used as well. It can be dried in cold air, wooden boxes, or climate-controlled rooms. Though quite similar to jerky, it's generally thicker and less sweet, as primary ingredients include vinegar and coriander. It's basically the cool foreign cousin that jerky wants to be when it grows up.

Bobotie
What is is: Curried mince (ground beef) baked with an egg-custard topping and toasted almonds.
What's the deal: Typically a dinner favorite, this is a hybrid Indonesia and Cape Malay dish: the curry flavors are from the Malaysian immigrants of the 17 and 1800s, and the name is Afrikaans. All the Malaysian-influenced herbs and spices make for a seriously unique flavor profile.

durban samoosas
Ruen Ellis

Durban Samoosas
What they are:
Curried potato & pea-filled crunchy pastry triangles served with mango atchar and chutney.
What's the deal: Gandhi started his work in South Africa prior to leaving for India. Immigrant Indians are a major part of the South African fabric, with the largest population residing in the coastal city of Durban. Samoosas are ubiquitous in the SA street-food game, and often include meat as an ingredient. As they should.

malva pudding
Ruen Ellis

Malva Pudding
What it is: A sweet pudding made with apricot jam, served hot and often with vanilla custard.
What's the deal: Of Afrikaner origin, malva means 'mauve' and the dessert has a spongy, bread pudding-like texture. In December 2006, Oprah's personal chef visited South Africa to cook Christmas dinner (including malva!) for the students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. The students presumably ate the malva in the Dr. Phil Memorial Cafeteria.

pap & boerewors
Ruen Ellis

Pap & Boerewors
What it is:
SA beef tenderloin sausage (boerewors) with traditional corn meal polenta (pap).
What's the deal: A good example of the cross-pollination often found in South African cuisine, the name is Afrikaans, though pap is a classic African dish eaten by almost every group in the country, with each putting their own twist on it. 'Wors' means sausage, and boerewors is a must-have at any 'braai' -- Afrikaans for 'barbeque' -- in fact, braais in general are must-haves, since they are a serious cultural and social institution.

prawns peri peri
Ruen Ellis

Mozambican Prawns Peri-Peri
What they are: Pan-seared or grilled prawns (shrimp) cooked in peri-peri sauce.
What's the deal: Killer seafood is "almost a birthright" in SA, where close to all of it is locally sourced. The country boasts a number of coastal cities with local fishing industries, and the freshness shows. The prawns are caught off the Mozambican coast (a shared coastline along the Indian Ocean) and prepared using peri-peri, a quintessential Portuguese spice and huge contributor to SA's cuisine canon. Nando’s is one of the country's most popular fast-food chains, a restaurant that's built their business on peri-peri chicken (chicken livers peri-peri are the main image of this guide!) -- even opening up shops in DC and London.

vetkoek
Ruen Ellis

‘Amagwinya’ Vetkoek
What it is: Deep-fried sourdough filled with savory mince & chutney.
What's the deal: The people of mixed race who predominantly populate the Western Cape are adept at adapting other cultures' cuisines, like this dish, which bears an Afrikaans name. Vetkoek, which literally translates to 'fat cake' (our favorite kind!), lives up to its name, being deep-fried and full of Cape Malay-inspired seasoned ground beef. It's supposedly a miracle hangover cure, too.

Rachel Freeman is a food/drink editorial assistant at Thrillist who also happens to be half South African. Her dad makes his own biltong, and though it's not on this list, she will drink you under the table when it comes to rooibos tea. Follow her into the abyss @rachelifreeman.