South Africa is the country at the southern tip of Africa. The cuisine of South Africa blends cultures and ingredients from many native and non-native influences. Grab your kids and let’s learn about South Africa!
On the southern tip of Africa, bordered by Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Eswatini to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Indian Ocean to the east. The coutry of Lesotho lies completely within South Africa.
A brief history to learn about South Africa
Archaeologists can trace human tools and artifacts on South African soil as far back as 100,000 years ago.
Around 10,000 BC, San people began to settle in the region, and around 2,000 BC, Bantu people began to migrate into the area as well.
Historians don’t know much about these indigenous tribes and their migrations. But, in 1488 AD, the first Europeans arrived, as the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. Several years later, Vasco de Gama sailed around the cape again on his way to India.
In 1652, the Dutch East India Company established the Dutch Cape Colony. While the intention was to begin a port town for ships passing through on the way to India, it became a larger settlement. Eventually, the Dutch settlers began to spread out and started raising crops and livestock, soon becoming known as Boers, which means ‘farmers’.
By 1806, the British arrived and took over the Dutch settlement. This drove many of the Dutch further north, in what historians call the ‘Great Trek’. They began two new states, but the British eventfully tried to take those over as well, resulting in the first and second Boer wars beginning in 1899.
By 1902, the British had taken over the Dutch colonies.
In 1910, the British colonies in South Africa decided to unite to form an independent country known as the Union of South Africa. A government made up of only white people controlled this new country. They enacted a series of regulations separating the white and black populations in South Africa. The system, known as apartheid, created tension in society and resulted in violent protests for the better part of the 20th century.
Officially, the people brought apartheid to an end in 1994 when the African National Congress won the country’s first democratic election.
Fun facts about South Africa for kids
- South Africa is the largest meat producer in Africa.
- South Africa is home to the tallest mammals on earth (giraffe), and the smallest mammals on earth (the least dwarf shrew).
- The world’s largest beer brewing company is located in South Africa.
South African food
South African cuisine finds its roots in the many diverse people groups who have inhabited the region, over the last several hundred years and today. As such, recipes and cooking styles hail from many places.
The indigenous tribes, the Dutch settlers, the Indonesians brought as slaves, the French Huguenots seeking religious freedom, and even the British colonists all have left their mark on South Africa’s food culture.
The introduction of foreign spices and recipes has influenced the cuisine. As has the non-native fruits and vegetables brought by European settlers.
Today, the foods of South Africa are an eclectic blend of culture and history, with a rich variety of flavors and spices.
What do South Africans eat? Mealtime in South Africa.
What constitutes a typical meal in South Africa can vary greatly from one region to another. In general, South African people eat three meals a day, following a very European style, even sometimes having an afternoon tea.
For breakfast, in addition to a cup of coffee or tea, many South African people have a hot dish of cooked cornmeal known as putu pap, usually served with milk and sugar.
Other favorites include pastries like vetkoek, which is a deep-fried type of bun, and beskuit, which is a dried sweet bread.
South Africans usually eat lunch from around 1 pm to 3 pm. Since they eat lunch during a short break from school or the workday, many people eat sandwiches or other foods that are easy to pack and carry.
A sub sandwich filled with fish, chips, and sauce, called a Gatsby, is a popular treat in the region. Another traditional favorite is bunny chow. This dish is a hollowed-out loaf of bread that they fill with meat or vegetable curry. The dish originated with Indonesian laborers working on plantations, who needed a sturdy way to bring filling meals out into the fields.
Dinner is a hearty and hot meal served late in the evening, around 7 pm to 9 pm. Typical dinners include mutton stew with vegetables, or bobotie, which is a curried meat casserole.
Another common dinner favorite is goat, chicken, or beef made on a braai, which is the South African word for barbecue. A popular braai meal is pap en vleis, a meal consisting of maize meal and grilled meat. Yet another braai favorite is a braaibroodjie. This is a grilled cheese sandwich, made on the braai, with onion, tomato, and chutney in addition to the cheese.
In most houses, people have a braai pit instead of a fireplace.
Food etiquette in South Africa
When invited for dinner in South Africa, it is good manners to bring a gift for the host, such as a box of chocolates. The host will typically offer tea upon a guest’s arrival. Accepting the tea is polite.
When eating, it is customary to pass, eat and share with one’s right hand only, even when using utensils.
The host may or may not offer forks, spoons, and knives. Eating with your hands is common, especially when enjoying a braai (barbeque) meal.
If the host serves food from a communal bowl, etiquette requires each guest to eat from only the part of the bowl directly in front of them.
The meal begins when the oldest male at the table begins to eat.
South African food by region
South Africa is divided into nine provinces. Here is a look at a few of their cuisines.
At the tip of South Africa lies Western Cape. This west coast cuisine is a mix of traditional recipes from the many small fishing towns that line the coast. You also find the use of spices brought to this region that was a stop on the East India Trade Route.
Here they use the abundance of seafood in some traditional favorites like smoked snoek tart, and haddock or mussel soups served with fresh bread.
The West coast is also famous for its west coast paella, a layered dish with white mussels and potatoes. Bredies, or stews, often made with lamb (mutton) and spiced tomatoes are also commonly on the menu.
Limpopo is the northernmost province in South Africa. The Sepedi people are a large tribe with a major population in this region. They have a food culture all their own. A traditional favorite is bullfrog. They boil it in a stew pot and place a heavy stone on the meat to keep it from rising.
This region grows many tropical and subtropical fruits. These fruits, like bananas and pineapples, the people often eat raw or sometimes cook as part of simple dishes. A popular fruit staple for breakfast is pap (porridge) which they make out of chopped and boiled down watermelon mixed with maize (corn) meal.
This province, on South Africa’s eastern coast, is famous for traditional Zulu foods. Beef and dairy are important parts of Zulu cuisine, as well as maize (corn) meal. The Zulu people often use the whole animal in their cooking. They make it into various stews in a three-legged pot called a potjie.
Liver, called usu, is very important to Zulu cuisine. It symbolizes bravery and strength. They serve it salted and cooked medium-rare.
A typical staple dish in this region is uphutu, a maize meal porridge, served either cold and plain or hot with beans and cabbage.
Holidays in South Africa
New Year’s Day (January 1)
In South Africa, citizens ring in the new year with parades and large fireworks displays. People commonly serve champagne or sparkling wines at midnight.
A popular traditional part of the celebration is also the throwing of furniture or appliances out of windows. In recent years police have been stricter about stopping the practice in larger cities, given the number of injured pedestrians.
Good Friday (Date varies)
While the people of South Africa come from many religions and cultures, even those who aren’t practicing Christians often partake in the traditional meal on Good Friday. This meal consists of Cape Malay pickled fish and hot cross buns. The fish are pickled in vinegar to represent the vinegar that soldiers offered Jesus to drink at his crucifixion. Remembering the crucifixion on this day is why they serve the fish with hot cross buns, in the British style. While recipes differ between families, they usually season their Cape Malay pickled fish with garlic and curry.
Heritage Day (September 24)
This is the day that South Africans celebrate their many unique cultural backgrounds. The people often dress in traditional clothing and serve meals representing the diverse traditions of their ancestors.
A favorite is milk tart (a puff pastry that bakers fill with custard and top with cinnamon). Another South African dish served in many parts of the country on Heritage day is boerewors. They make this traditional sausage with minced beef and spices. South Africans (of course) grill them on the braai.
Christmas (December 25)
Christmas is a great celebration full of family, friends, and lots of food. South Africans often serve the main Christmas meal in the early afternoon.
Since Christmas falls during the summer season, the meal often includes seafood appetizers, such as prawns, crayfish tails, or lobster cooked on the braai. Roast turkey, roast ham, or leg of lamb are almost always present at the table for the main course. Yellow rice and raisins, and a variety of roasted vegetables and potatoes complete the meal.
At home ideas for kids to learn about South Africa
As a part of your homeschool South Africa unit study or as a supplement to your child’s South Africa unit at school, try some of these ideas at home. Hands-on activities immerse students in the culture and help them remember what they learn!
- Invite some friends over for your own braai, and put some meat (like these South African skewers) and even seafood on the grill. Have the kids make some South African sweetcorn bread to go along with the meal.
- Find a tutorial and learn a traditional Zulu dance!
- Take a virtual safari, and explore some of the amazing wildlife of the region.