Preparing and Eating a Cape Malay Meal (Cape Town)
Typified by mild, sweet curries and stews, this cuisine is easy on the uninitiated palate. The most authentic restaurant is Biesmiellah, located in the Bo-Kaap in Cape Town, and many of the top restaurants in the Cape incorporate Cape Malay spicing in creative ways. While you could simply sit down to a meal, why not join an eye-opening "cooking safari," during which you cook alongside genuine Bo-Kaap families in their own homes? Learn to roll roti and fold samosas, and then tuck into a gratifying home-cooked meal, featuring the results of your own labor. Rather than leaving a tip, you'll leave having made friends with a community.
Tucking into Boerekos (Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Tulbagh)
South Africa's countryside is dotted with small-town communities where traditional Afrikaner boerekos (farmers' food) is still a staple, although perhaps given a contemporary update in the manner of 21st-century celebrity chefs (even Gordon Ramsey's new Cape Town venture, maze, plunders one or two original recipes). For the most inspired take on modern South African cuisine, try Cognito (tel. 021/882-8696), in Stellenbosch. While in Tulbagh, the Wineland's darling sleeping giant, you can sample ultratraditional waterblommetjiebredie (water lily stew) at Paddagang Restaurant (tel. 023/230-0242), on Church Street, lined with beautifully restored Cape Dutch heritage.
Lunching in the Vineyards (Winelands)
Set aside at least one afternoon to lunch in the Winelands overlooking vine-carpeted valleys. Recommended options include the lovely terrace at Constantia Uitsig (tel. 021/794-4480), on the Constantia Wine Route; a window table at La Petite Ferme (tel. 021/876-3016), overlooking the lush Franschhoek Valley; or -- for the most sought-after dining experience in Stellenbosch -- Overture (tel. 021/880-2721), with tables perched over the vineyards.
High Tea at the Nellie (Cape Town)
Regularly voted Africa's top hotel, the Mount Nelson has been serving up the best high tea south of the equator for over a century. Luxuriate on sofas under chandeliers as plates piled high with cucumber sandwiches and cream tea are served to the strains of the tinkling pianist. A graciously colonial experience, it's a relative bargain at R150 a head.
Braaing Kreef (lobster) on the Beach (West Coast, Western Cape)
The West Coast all-you-can-eat beach braais (barbecues) are legendary, giving you an opportunity to try a variety of local fish. Your best bet is Muisbosskerm, near Lamberts Bay, an ideal spot if you want to combine a trip to the Cederberg.
Eating with Your Fingers
You'll find that the African staple pap (maize-meal prepared as a stiff porridge that resembles polenta) is best sampled by balling a bit in one hand and dipping the edge into a sauce or stew. Try umngqusho -- a stew made from maize kernels, sugar beans, chilies, and potatoes, said to be one of Nelson Mandela's favorites. You'll most likely sample pap on a township tour.
Dining Under the Stars to the Sounds of the Bush (private game reserves throughout southern Africa)
There's nothing like fresh air to work up an appetite, unless it's the smell of sizzling food cooked over an open fire. Happily, dinners at private game reserves combine both more often than not. Weather permitting, meals are served in a boma (a reeded enclosure), or in the bush in riverbeds or under large trees. Armed rangers and massive fires keep predators at bay.
Chewing Biltong on a Road Trip
Biltong, strips of game, beef, or ostrich cured with spices and dried, is sold at farm stalls and butcher shops throughout the country. This popular local tradition, dating back to the Voortrekkers, is something of an acquired taste, but it's almost addictive once you've started.
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