South Africa: offering the culturally curious a heady mix of flavours
From the traditional heritage of its rural villages to the urban art and cuisine of its cosmopolitan cities, a selection of local guides offer up some invaluable tips for your next trip
Peel back the layers of South African cosmopolitan cities, with the help of insider tips from local guides, and you'll find a wealth of world-class cuisine to sample.
There’s way more to South Africa than beautiful landscapes and extraordinary game parks. For culture vultures and foodies, there are loads of great places to visit and experience - just ask some local guides.
Thoko Jili - the Zulu tour guide
Find out more about Zulu’s renowned culture with a trip through KwaZulu-Natal. Jili’s tours often start in the village of Maphephetheni, in an area called the Valley of a Thousand Hills.
“You will fall in love with it. It’s not staged in any way - people are living 100 per cent authentic lives. When we make friends, support the locals and are respectful, the people are very happy. They’ll cook for you, sing for you, and recite poetry for you. I’m excited to share these stories and my roots,” says Jili, who reckons there are no people as warm as the Zulu.
“We’re brave people — warriors — and we love our culture. Come sit down with us,” she says. A traditional lunch might consist of ujeqe, which is steamed bread made out of soft corn, seasonal vegetables and chicken. The traditional beer, umqombothi, takes just three days to brew. By tradition the host drinks it first, to prove it’s not poisoned!
Charles Ncube - the Jo'Burg culture vulture
For urban culture, don’t miss Johannesburg. “Jo’burg is great for its social life, for food and cocktails, for hanging out and just soaking up the environment,” says Ncube, who recommends the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein as a great place to start.
“It shows off the city’s creativity, with amazing food and cool fashion. It’s a part of the regeneration of the city - in 1995 and 1996, Johannesburg was a no-go area. Today we have so many vibrant places that showcase our spirit.”
Jo’burg is famed for its street art. “Murals are how artists showcase their skills and how the city shows off its culture. But before, during the dark time under apartheid, art was a way that people communicated when they had their freedoms restricted. Today, the centre of the art scene is Maboneng, which is one of the most successful regeneration projects in the world.”
There are also great galleries, boutiques, bars and restaurants like Pata Pata.
Soweto, where he was raised, is not to be missed. “Despite past struggles, it’s a very progressive township, full of historical sights and activities and reignited life. There’s bungee jumping and quad biking at the Soweto Towers and cycling and tuk tuk tours from Leto’s Backpackers. There’s Hector Pieterson Memorial, where you can learn about the 1976 Soweto Uprising. The wounds are the scars of the past and are still open in this township, but nobody’s crying here. It’s one of the most vibrant parts of the whole country.”
Juma Mkwela - (walking) tour guide of local murals
Woodstock, a suburb of Cape Town, combines great food with great art. There are more than 100 murals here painted by local and international artists. Mkwela’s walking tours show you the best of them – with plenty of opportunities for a restorative bite along the way. “Woodstock now has one of the finest restaurants in the world, The Test Kitchen,” he says.
“Places like Rosetta Roastery and Honest Chocolate are popular, so is the food and fashion at Saturday’s Neighbourgoods Market in the Old Biscuit Mill. It’s very vibrant, very happening and after a day checking out the street art you can have a drink at the arty Casa Woodstock Bar.”
Jonas Barausse - the insider with all the local tips
Durban, South Africa’s third city, is well worth exploring too. Go for its beautiful beaches, the amazing calibre of musicians, the offering of fusion food and world class distilleries - and the weather. “Durbanites always joke that we have two seasons here, summer and summer,” says Barausse.
“But Durban really appeals to someone who wants to discover – who wants to peel back the layers of a city.”
He can help you find its coolest spots. “Take Florida Road, one of Durban’s main strips. It’s undergoing this second wave of urban revitalisation at the moment, and entrepreneurs are doing some really amazing stuff. There are loads of incredible local coffee places, like Skyline Coffee Roastery, and restaurants such as Falafel Fundi, which has become a Durban institution in no time at all. Florida Road is a place that’s full of life and energy and colour. It’s really bustling, and a good representation of the spirit of Durban.”
He believes one of the biggest misconceptions people have about South Africa is that it is “just a big wildlife reserve”. As a result, they “aren’t aware that South Africa is a superpower on the continent, with amazing, cosmopolitan cities to rival the Americas, Asia and Europe.”
Abigail Mbalo - the foodie MasterChef
South Africa’s cuisine is showcased at its best by Abigail Mbalo, the award winning chef behind 4Roomed Ekasi Culture in the township of Khayelitsha. She is a MasterChef South Africa winner who promptly gave up her day job to open the restaurant, naming it after the standard four roomed homes found in the oldest townships across the country.
Part of the reason for its success is because it celebrates South African-inspired cuisine. Opt for her pumpkin and pap dish umqa, with butternut, nutmeg and a drizzle of truffle oil, plus amkhekhe, a scone like pudding with citrus flavours, chocolate chips and yuzu syrup. “We love adding whatever grows in the garden, in this case gooseberries and nasturtium flowers,” says Mbalo, who tops it all off with her signature burnt sugar decoration. Through all her dishes, two ingredients stands out: “We want to evoke nostalgia and pride,” she says.
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