Cape Town is a veritable foodie paradise. The city’s history, along with global food trends, means that there are several dishes you have to try when visiting the Mother City – whether it’s traditional South African braai (barbecue), wild game meat or Japanese sushi.
Cape Town has a unique multicultural heritage that influences much of its cuisine. There are few dishes or foods that stand alone as “traditional”. Instead, you’ll find a mix of styles, flavours and techniques – from Cape Dutch to French, Indian and Japanese. Its location on the southern tip of Africa means seafood is also available in abundance. Read on to discover what you need to add to your foodie bucket list when visiting Cape Town.
Due to its British colonial history and proximity to flourishing oceans, Cape Town has a vibrant fish-and-chips culture, which reveals itself in various forms. You’ll find casual street-food-style eateries and hole-in-the-wall hatches serving up deep-fried fish and chips, along with fancier versions served at top restaurants. If you want to keep it traditional, head to a specialist fish-and-chips shop – such as Kalky’s in Kalk Bay and Snoekies in Hout Bay – and order a portion of deep-fried hake or snoek with chips. It may not be the healthiest option, but it’s tasty, cheap and the perfect accompaniment to a day by the sea.
Cape Town has several popular African-themed restaurants that will leave you thinking that zebra, kudu, springbok and warthog are regular features in South African cuisine. Though residents are big meat eaters, it’s usually beef, pork and chicken. Wild game meat is not a regular dish served up on South African tables but still makes for a fun night out. The touristy spots in the city serve up a variety of grilled game meat, while high-end restaurants produce more considered recipes featuring various wild animals.
There are few foods as truly Capetonian as a gatsby. It originated in the Cape Flats area in the mid-1970s. It’s a large submarine-style sandwich crammed full of meats, chips and sauces, and costs only a few rands. The meat is not usually the best grade, so you can expect it to be masala steak, polony (similar to bologna) or highly processed Vienna sausage. Only the most ravenous can finish an entire gatsby, so it’s perfectly acceptable to order a half portion. You won’t find this meal on the menu at your typical fine-dining restaurant, but rather at hole-in-the-wall shops and no-frills eateries such as the Golden Dish or Cosy Corner Take-Away.
Bunny chow is a classic South African meal that draws on the country’s Indian influence. It’s a filling, fast-food dish that is essentially half a loaf of hollowed-out bread filled with curry. The meat is usually beef or chicken and, aside from the unusual name, has nothing to do with rabbits. Like the gatsby, few people manage to eat an entire portion, so it might be safer starting with a quarter loaf (kota). Some restaurants in the city have attempted to make gourmet versions of this casual meal, though you’re better off getting this at a takeaway joint.
Bobotie (pronounced buh-boor-tea) is a Cape Malay creation made with minced beef and topped with a savoury egg custard. It’s a fragrant, sweet-and-sour dish flavoured with spices and dried fruit. Bobotie dates back to the 17th century when Indonesian slaves were brought to Cape Town, bringing their distinct style of cooking with them. You’ll find this on several restaurant menus throughout the city, and it’s a particularly comforting meal on a cold winter’s night.
Sushi may not have the historical roots of other traditional dishes, but Cape Town and its chefs have taken to it with gusto. These days you’ll find sushi in most high-end restaurants, and there are dozens of noteworthy sushi spots throughout the city. Chefs here put unique spins on the dish, deviating from the traditional Japanese style and techniques; it’s also competitively priced compared to other tourist destinations, making it worth seeking out in the city.
Less a dish and more a snack, biltong and droëwors are the staple bar or road-trip food in many South African diets. They’re made by drying meat and adding a special blend of spices. Biltong is simply cured, dried and then sliced or left in solid sticks. Droëwors is essentially a dried sausage. Though on paper both sound slightly bizarre, most meat eaters consider them addictive snacks. You’ll find biltong and droëwors of varying quality in all supermarkets and as snacks at some pubs, bars and restaurants.
Braai is one of the first Afrikaans words that most tourists learn. It’s essentially the South African take on the traditional barbecue, with a few local twists. Braais are usually meat-heavy and take place in backyards. There’s no real restriction on what you can braai, but most include boerewors (a local spiced sausage), steak and pork or lamb chops. Some food-orientated hotels and backpacker hostels will schedule traditional braais for guests.
There are a handful of traditional sweet treats worth seeking out to round off your meal. Milk tarts, malva pudding and koeksisters will keep most people with a sweet tooth satisfied. Though these desserts started as traditional recipes made in local kitchens, you’ll find them in bakeries, supermarkets and many restaurants.