Cape Town Cuisine

Obesity is a well known problem in the U.S. and Americans are often criticized for our processed foods and overeating. Because of that, I had assumed that any other country I visited would serve tiny portions and locals would walk to the local market each morning to pick up fresh, unprocessed food for the day. However, as my scale has quickly confirmed, that is not the case in South Africa.

Portion sizes in Cape Town are huge, deserts are abundant and delicious, and restaurants often give the option to upsize dishes for a small fee. There are lots of fried foods and baked goods, and most of the junk food one might purchase in the U.S. has a near identical South African counterpart. I have found the selection of candy in Cape Town, which consists of lots of Cadbury chocolate and Dairy Milk bars, to be particularly delicious. Although it is often similar to what is found in America, the cuisine is also influenced by Malaysian and Indian culture, and there are some unique items and noticeable differences in the South African menu:

  • Gatsbys are gigantic, foot-long sandwiches filled with french fries and various meats.
  • Mince is basically just ground beef, but South Africans put it in everything.
  • Atchar is a condiment made from pickled mangoes and chilis.
  • Pap is a traditional Afrikaans porridge made from ground maize. It is usually eaten with one’s hands.
  • Steamed bread is a traditional South African side. It is very dense and moist and delicious.
  • Bunny Chow is a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with curry.
  • Samoosas are fried, triangle-shaped pastries filled with savory fillings like lamb, mince, or veggies and Indian spices.
  • Meat pies are self-explanatory pastries filled with various meats and fillings. They are extremely popular and can be found at every gas station, convenience store, and street stand in Cape Town.
  • Biltong is dried, cured meat. Although similar to American jerky, biltong is prepared differently and is much thicker.
  • Milo is a chocolate and malt powder mixed with milk to make a drink similar to hot chocolate.
  • Ostrich meat is popular in burgers.
  • Waffles are eaten for desert, never for breakfast.
  • Malva pudding is a South African desert that contains apricot jam in a spongy, caramel-like cake. It is usually served with cream or ice cream.
  • Instant coffee. While we have it in America, instant coffee is the only option in South Africa unless you happen to be at a fancy restaurant that serves coffee with a french press.
  • Tomato sauce sits next to the mustard at the table. It is basically ketchup, but nobody calls it that.
  • Chips are fries. If you want chips, ask for crisps.
  • Whipped cream is literally just whipped cream. There is no sugar added to it, so it tastes like eating half and half.
  • Boerewors are traditional South African sausages that are popular for braais. They are made up of a mixture of beef, lamb, and pork. They are also delicious.
  • Potjiekos are stews cooked over a fire in a cast iron pot similar to a Dutch oven.
  • Chakalaka is a vegetable relish similar to a spicy salsa. It is served as a side with traditional South African meals.
  • Milk tarts are a popular desert in South Africa.
  • Bobotie is a traditional South African dish consisting of mince meat and egg topping served over rice.
  • Vetkoek is traditional South African fried dough bread that can be savory or sweet depending on the filling.

When eating at a restaurant in Cape Town, checks are never split (something I have found especially noticeable because I often travel in a group with 8 other people). Instead, the server goes around the table with a credit card machine (which locals call “yoco” machines) and give individual change to each guest. When I mentioned how odd this arrangement would seem in the states, my South African friend was shocked that Americans hand their cards over to servers and trust them to charge the correct amount.

Grocery shopping is also different in Cape Town. The expiration dates of foods are much sooner, the selection is smaller, the sweet potatoes are huge and green, and there is no shredded or sliced cheese, only blocks. The main grocery store chains are Pick ‘N Pay, Spar, Checkers, Woolworths, and Shoprite, and there are also Engen gas stations that carry Woolworths groceries and Bonjour convenience stores.

When you don’t feel like grocery shopping, there are a variety of popular fast food chains around town, including:

  • KFC I was very surprised at how popular KFC is in South Africa. There is a KFC on every block. The menu is slightly different (a lot more avocado) and they serve breakfast.
  • Steers Steers is a burger/chicken/ribs fast food restaurant. I don’t like it at all.
  • Debonairs Pizza I have yet to try this popular South African pizza place.
  • Wimpy Wimpy is basically South Africa’s version of Denny’s.
  • Fishaways Fishaways is a fish and chips fast food restaurant.
  • McDonalds Although there are a few McDonalds, they’re not nearly as popular as the other fast food chains. However, McDonalds in South Africa offer delivery.
  • Corner Bakery Corner Bakeries are often located in gas stations. They serve coffee, meat pies, samoosas, and other baked goods.
  • Mugg & Bean Mugg & Bean serves coffee and baked goods.
  • Vida e café Vida e café is a quick service coffee and tea shop.
  • Spur Spur is a little nicer than the other restaurants on this list, and one can be found on every block.

Aside from all of this, my absolute favorite part of eating out in Cape Town are the many weekend markets. No matter what area of town you happen to visit, there is sure to be an indoor or outdoor market filled with a variety of local shops and stands selling every kind of food you could possibly be craving. From falafel burgers and sushi at The Bay Harbour Market in Hout Bay, to tacos and bobotie at Mojo market in Sea Pointe, to fried macaroni balls and waffle sundaes at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, there is always something new and delicious to try in Cape Town.

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