Indigenous South African Cooking

South Africa’s earliest inhabitants were the hunter-gatherer San and the nomadic Khoikhoi herders. The traditional San diet included roots, herbs, berries, nuts and eggs; invertebrates like caterpillars, locusts and termites; and wild game. The Khoikhoi also practised hunter-gathering as they rarely slaughtered their own livestock.

About 2000 years ago, Bantu peoples came from the north, introducing iron tools and new agricultural practices. Two main groups emerged, the Nguni and the Sotho–Tswana.

The two largest Bantu groups in South Africa today are the Zulu and the Xhosa; traditionally both have been herders and farmers. But, despite the cultural significance of livestock, a number of their everyday dishes are made from vegetables and grains.

Miriam, who lived with us when I was little, was a proud Zulu woman. Her ‘kaya’, where she would have visitors, often smelt of the lemony leaves she put in tea and the pungent scent of pork fat, boiling sugar beans and samp. She spoilt me by always offering me some when I knocked on her door.

‘Samp and beans’ is called isistambu by the Zulu and umngqusho by the Xhosa. It was also one of Nelson Mandela’s favourite dishes!

I cook a simple dish of samp, borlotti beans, chicken stock and rendered pork fat. It’s also common for the samp and beans to be added to a spiced stew base, sometimes with capsicum and meat. In my kitchen, when the dish is ready, the smell instantly stirs up memories of a short but unforgettable spell in my childhood.

Basic samp and beans

Serves 6

2 cups samp

2 cups dried borlotti beans         

1 l chicken stock, plus extra water

2 tsp salt

1 tsp pepper

1 bay leaf

pinch of paprika

2 tbsp of bacon or pork lard – or other ‘tasty’ fat (some people use butter!)

Put the samp in a sieve and rinse it a few times until the water runs clear and some of the loose starch has been removed.

Place the samp and borlotti beans in a large bowl and cover with water.

Soak for eight hours.

Discard the soaking liquid and place the samp and bean mixture in a large heavy-bottomed pot.

Cover with the chicken stock and water until the contents of the pot are just covered.

Add the salt, pepper, paprika and bay leaf.

Bring gently to the boil.

Turn the heat down to low and cover.

Leave to simmer, without stirring, for about two and a quarter hours.

Check during cooking and replenish the liquid if necessary.

Once the contents of the pot are cooked to your liking (I like them softened, but not to the point that they are ‘mushy’), turn the heat off. (Most of the water should have evaporated at this stage.)

Gently stir in the fat.


Note: Don’t be tempted to stir the mixture too much. This may cause the beans to break up. The most I would do is give it a ‘gentle push’ so that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot!

Samp and beans PDF

Ulusu (tripe)

Among many Nguni peoples beef, sheep and goat are popular meats. When an animal is slaughtered (often for special occasions or rituals) no part is wasted, from the head to the trotters. It is also customary in both Zulu and Xhosa society for the most coveted cuts of meat to be saved for elderly men and those of high status, while the least prized are reserved for the women and children!

One of the cuts often designated for women is tripe. This is one case where I wouldn’t mind ‘coming last’. If you can get past the idea of eating offal, please try it – it is delicious when cooked the right way!

Ulusu is the Xhosa word for tripe. I have kept this recipe simple so it’s closer to the way it would be served traditionally.

Serves 6

1 kg uncooked honeycomb tripe, well-cleaned and cut into 5 cm pieces

3 cups beef stock

1 large onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 tbsp curry powder

salt to taste


Soak the tripe in cold water for half an hour, drain and rinse under a tap.

Place the tripe in a large heavy-based pot and cover with cold water.

Bring to the boil and allow to simmer for one minute.

Drain off all the water and any ‘scum’ that has formed on the top.

In the same pot, add the beef stock, onion, garlic and curry powder to the blanched tripe.

If the tripe is not covered, top up with water.

Bring to a gentle boil.

Reduce the heat to low and cover, leaving a slight gap between the lid and the pot for some steam to escape.

Simmer for four hours; add water as needed if the pot becomes too dry.

About half an hour before the end of cooking, remove the lid to allow more of the liquid to escape and the pot juices to thicken.

Add salt to taste.

When it is done the tripe should be soft and tender. Serve with samp and beans.

Ulusu (tripe) PDF