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South Africa’s sugar-enhanced cuisine
The next stop on our sugar journey ‘around the world’ is South Africa. The country’s dishes and culinary traditions have been shaped over many years by its diverse communities, in particular the Khoisan people indigenous to southern Africa, the Cape Malay influences of South-East Asia, and foodways adopted from European and Indian settlers. Sugar is an essential component of many of the country’s dishes and drinks, acting as a sweetener, texture modifier, preservative and flavouring agent, among other uses.
A brief history of sugar production in South Africa
Though sugarcane had already been planted on Africa’s west coast by Portuguese settlers, sugarcane production only got going from the 1840s. In 1848, Edmund Morewood pioneered the development of South Africa’s sugar industry by planting sugarcane crops on his farm on the North Coast and establishing a sugar mill.
Around this time, the sugar was extracted using rollers made from Yellowwood tree bark. By 1887, there were approximately 75 sugar mills in the region. The sugar industry was by then competing with a growing mining industry for labour, and workers from India were brought in to help meet the shortfall.
Today, South Africa is low on the list of sugar producing countries globally, particularly since countries like Eswatini has its own individual listings as a producer. In 2022-23, the country produced around 2 million metric tonnes of sugar, roughly twice that of the UK, highlighting its low position on the global sugar production league tables.
Over the past decade, there has been a general decline and fluctuation in the quantities of sugarcane produced in the country due to domestic sugar tax increases, lower import prices and, as consequence, farmers switching to more profitable crops, such as macadamia nuts.
Sugar and different influences in South Africa’s main dishes
Bobotie, pronounced ‘ba-bo-tea’, is one of the country’s most famous meat dishes. Not dissimilar to moussaka, this baked dish consists of a spiced, minced meat layer underneath an egg-based topping.
For breakfast, mealie pap is a maize-based porridge beloved by different communities and demographics across South Africa. It is made from milled white maize and a raw cane sugar made form unrefined sugarcane juice, similar to jaggary, for sweetness. Often golden syrup and melted butter are combined to form a syrup that is poured over the top.
South African desserts
A milk tart or ‘melktert’ originated among Dutch settlers in the Dutch Cape Colony in the 1600s and is believed to be adapted from the Dutch ‘mattentaart’, a cheesecake-like dessert. The milk tart has a sweet pastry crust and a custard filling, and golden caster sugar or granulated sugar are used to sweeten the custard filling but not overpower it.
And for those with a real sweet tooth, peppermint crisp tart is a go-to dessert. Peppermint crisp, a milk chocolate bar hugely popular in South Africa since its invention in the 1960s, forms the basis of the dessert. The tart combines dulce de leche or caramel condensed milk and whipped cream.
The bottom of the dish is lined with tennis biscuits – another popular treat – and the cream and caramel mixture is spread on top before another layer of each goes on top of that. The peppermint crisp bars are sprinkled into the filling and folded through and sprinkled on the top, for extra crunch. The peppermint crisp, a key ingredient of the dessert, has a slightly bitter sweetness and contains glucose syrup.
Sugar in snacks and drinks
A toffee popcorn snack makes use of the South African cream liqueur Amarula, a drink that is named after its key ingredient, Amarula tree fruit, a tree indigenous to the region. For the popcorn, light cane muscovado sugar and golden syrup are melted with butter to create a sticky, toffee sauce before the Amarula is added. This sugary concoction is then poured over the popcorn.
Some recipes for biltong, a dried, cured meat snack from southern Africa, have been known to add light soft brown light sugar or dark soft brown sugar to the vinegar solution prior to the curing process. The sugar aids the drying of the meat and balances out its otherwise intense saltiness. However, where sugar is used it is used sparingly so the biltong maintains its savouriness.
Another sweet South African delicacy is koeksisters, or cake sisters. This is a traditional Afrikaner confectionery made of fried dough infused in syrup or honey. The name comes from the Dutch word ‘koek’, meaning cake.
A Cape Malay version of the traditional recipe sees the fried dough bolls rolled in desiccated coconut. Many recipes include golden syrup in the list of ingredients for the syrup. As the syrup is ice cold when the just fried koeksisters are submerged in it, golden syrup is ideal as it helps to depress the freezing point.
Not only can the golden syrup coating help extend shelf life, but it also adds a warm colour and gloss to the koeksisters, making them even more appealing to look at as well as eat.
Sugar is influential in South African cuisine, where it is used to enhance the flavour and colour of dishes and drinks that are both savoury and sweet.