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The history of South African cooking

Dutch origins

It was the need for food that triggered the colonization of South Africa. The Dutch East India Company needed a refreshment station for ships travelling from Europe to the East. The Dutch landed in 1652 in the Cape, with orders to establish a farm to provide fresh vegetables and meat for the ships rounding the Cape.

Holland ruled for 150 years and the Dutch cuisine had a big influence on South-African cookery. Rice, gentle spices (like cinnamon and nutmeg) and deep-frying techniques (such as for vetkoek) were important in Cape-Dutch recipes. Meat "frikadelle" is Dutch in origin.

Malay, German and French influence

Over time South African cooking became a curious blend of Eastern and Western food. Slaves were brought from Java and Indonesia in 1667. Cape Malay slaves, who were excellent cooks, brought a unique flavour and style. The exciting mixtures of pungent spices, condiments and multi-flavoured Masalas (mild curry) added exotic flavour. It pointed Eastward rather than to Holland and it had a big influence on traditional South African cuisine.

German adventurers also settled in the new country to farm. Boerewors (Afrikaans for farmer's sausage) is a legacy from early German settlers and is traditionally made from beef, pork, coriander seeds, cloves, nutmeg and allspice.

The French Huguenots arrived between 1688 and 1690. Their most important contribution was to grow vines, starting winemaking in the Cape. They also bought jams and preserves, and used wine in cooking and baking.

Nomad food for the Voortrekkers

The Dutch, German and French immigrants became a new nation: the Afrikaner. Some become farmers that stayed on their farms and made a living out of fruit of cereal farming. Some farmers obtained more cattle and they needed more land as they trekked after suitable grazing with their animals and they were "trekboere" (farmers that move to fresh grazing fields). The Voortrekkers were Afrikaner pioneers that moved from the British Cape Colony to the interior (Orange Free State, Transvaal, Natal) between 1835 - the 1840's. The ox-wagon and horse were their only means of transport and thus few provisions were taken along on long journeys.

In order to survive, the nomad farmers had to hunt, shoot and roast meat on open fires in the open air. This is the origin of the braaivleis (translated it means grilled meat). Some ate their braaivleis with griddlecakes or bread and the Voortrekkers, that came into contact with black tribes, were introduced to the staple food of Africa - mealie meal porridge "pap". Interesting, South Africans originating from the Cape would usually prefer a grilled onion, cheese and tomato sandwich with their braai but in the Transvaal, Natal and Orange Freestate, porridge "pap" is common at a braai.

As the Trekkers could not transport many pots on the journey, a one-pot meal called potjiekos, was born of a necessity to simplify cooking during the great trek. A three-legged cast iron pot is filled with meat, starch and vegetables, seasoned with spices and covered with the lid. Hot coals are then scraped underneath the pot to create an all-round moist heat capable of tenderising the toughest of meat. Only occasionally is the lid lifted to baste the food: the pot needs to be sealed so that the natural juices can create a rich gravy.

Also these pioneers and explorers took dried rusks "beskuit" (similar to dried bread) and biltong on their voyages to sustain them. Once the Voortrekkers settled on farms in the Transvaal, Natal and Orange Free State, they started to cultivate their lands again and they returned to the eating habits that was customary at the Cape.

British and Indian influence

In the late 1700's Britain assumed rulership and a more colonial lifestyle were introduced. In the 1820 British settlers arrived in the Eastern Frontier, bringing English style food with them.

In the mid 1800's sugar cane plantations in Natal were established. Indians were brought to South Africa as servants on contracts to provide labourers for the plantations. Many stayed after the contracts were up and Indian dishes like curries became part of the South African food scene.

The South African melting pot

With the discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa at the end of the 19th century, people from all over the world migrated to South Africa. That enriched the cuisine further. For instance, the Portugese added peri-peri to the melting pot.

Black communities favoured dishes like pap (porridge made of maize-meal), served with sheba (tomato and onion sauce), samp and beans as mealies (corn) are the staple food of Africa.

As you can see, South Africa has a rich heritage of culinary customs and recipes, of diverse origins.