Defining the core 100 flavours of South Africa

The Makers Landing Food Lab incubation programme at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront recently opened, a partnership with the National Treasury’s Jobs Fund to support job creation and skills development in the local food industry. It’s currently home, too, to an exhibition of 100 Flavours of South Africa.

While this is a culinary project, it does provide some interesting insights into the fascinating diversity of the South African food palette and flavour preferences.

Curated by Studio H, this exhibition is a beginning –  which is as it should be – because there are no right or wrong answers in the quest for a country’s core tastes, writes food anthropologist, Anna Trapido.

“The brief was impressively/absurdly ambitious. It potentially encompassed everything ever consciously consumed by people living on the land that we currently call South Africa…..The list was created after considerable consultation but nevertheless it is merely a tool with which to discuss, debate and thereafter to add/subtract epicurean entries. It is hoped that the 100 Flavours exhibition (which opened on 10 December 2020) will whet appetites for an exploration of South African identity through food.”

Here is a distillation of the amazing scope of flavours and foods of South Africa, defined by its diverse peoples, races and history, in no particular order:

  • Fermented porridge or, umqombothi, and mageu.
  • Pinotage and potjie pot.
  • Amarostile breads (roosterkoek or braai bread or stokbrood (bread on a stick).
  • Shisa nyama (pictured above), and also brushed (along with apricot jam) into sides of snoek.
  • From Atteridgeville to Zebedela, the coriander, fat and smoke laden loveliness of boerewors on a braai.
  • The sweetness of honey.
  • Edible termites (majenjhe in Xitsonga, madzhulu in Tshivenda and magoro in Sepedi).
  • Startling strong meads (including Khoi-style !Karri, Tswana-style Khadi and Xhosa IQhilika).
  • Cape ingelegde vis (pickled fish) with hot cross buns at Easter.
  • ZCC tee ya thaba (herbal infusion drunk by members of the ZCC which they believe offers spiritual cleansing).
  • Melktert has both Dutch and Asian antecedents but the ratio of milk to eggs is completely different from either.
  • Soetkoekies, that today have travelled very far from the zoetenkoekjies that arrived in 1652.
  • Classic Cape Malay sweet-sour-spiced dishes such as denningvleis (Cape Malay sweet–sour lamb), tamarind balls and tameletjies (classic Cape Malay toffee treat, sprinkled with pine kernels).
  • Huguenots brought brandied fruit preservation and an assortment of enriched doughs that in a Cape context became mosbolletjie breads.
  • At the close of the 1700s British imperial expansion was accompanied by an exodus of trekboers who emphasised dried, preserved, travel friendly food such as droëwors, biltong and boerebeskuit.
  • The 19th century arrival of indentured sugar workers added South Indian curry to the national flavour repertoire, especially in KwaZulu-Natal where bunny chow has become the ultimate South African sandwich; or perhaps the Cape’s Gatsby (left) could also claim that title?
  • Monkey gland sauce isn’t quite as adventurous as it sounds.
  • The “smiley” sheep is not really smiling (his lips are retracting in response to heat).
  • Mopane “worms” are actually caterpillars.
  • Can any of us imagine a life before chakalaka, mango atchar, Mrs Balls chutney or pelepele (in Soweto this is what cayenne powder is called, used like salt as a seasoning) with street food inhloko (cow head) beef cheek?
  • South Africans adore maize: in the plethora of forms: whole green mealies cooked on an mbaula (street brazier) stove, light as air steamed maize breads and rough textured umngqusho samp and beans, madly multi-coloured Soweto style skopas popcorns and vibrant orange Nik Naks corn chips, too.
  • Our stigmatised “poverty foods”: wild imifino (greens), tinned pilchards or ‘Johanne 14’ cabbage (township slang for cabbage).
  • Tsonga xigugu, sometimes called “Tsonga chocolate” it is actually more like a salted caramel. Only much, much nicer.
  • Mebos, moskonfyt, moatwana (chicken feet) and mother-in-law masala.

Read more about the exhibition and the project here….