was the search for food that shaped modern South Africa: spices drew the Dutch
East India Company to Java in the mid-1600s, and the need for a half-way
refreshment stop for its ships rounding the Cape impelled the Company to plant a
farm at the tip of Africa.
There are sections of Commander Jan van Riebeeck's
wild almond hedge still standing in the Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town.
That farm changed the region forever. The Company
discovered it was easier to bring in thousands of hapless slaves from Java to
work in the fields than to keep trying to entrap the local people, mostly Khoi
and San, who seemed singularly unimpressed with the Dutch and their ways.
Malay slaves brought their cuisine, perhaps the best-known of all South African
The French Huguenots arrived soon after the Dutch,
and changed the landscape in wonderful ways with the vines they imported. They
soon discovered a need for men and women to work in their vineyards, and turned
to the Malay slaves (and the few Khoi and San they could lure into employment).
Much later, sugar farmers brought indentured laborers
from India to cut the cane. The British, looking for gold and empire, also
brought their customs and cuisine, as did German immigrants.
And black communities carried on eating their
traditional, healthy diet: game, root vegetables and wild greens, berries,
millet, sorghum and maize, and protein-rich insects like locusts.
Today the resultant kaleidoscope - the famous
"rainbow" - applies not only to the people but to the food, for one finds in
South Africa the most extraordinary range of cuisines.