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Unique South African Sweets: The 8 You Must Try

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1 month ago

In a country so ethnically and culturally diverse, South African sweets are by default varied and unique. There are some South African desserts and sweets which truly stand out above the rest and which you must make an effort to try while you’re in South Africa – get it as soon as you see it on the menu!

There are quite a few more desserts that would make this list because every ethnic group in the country brings its own unique flavors and desserts, so we’ve curated this list to make sure you try the best of them. There are also a variety of other desserts that you can only find in certain regions but are less common throughout the country – and lots of amazing South African foods generally.

1. Malva pudding

The mother of all South African desserts and the only competitor of the milk tart for the title of South African’s national dessert, Malva pudding is a sweet pudding of custard with a jam.

Some recipes have more of an unexpected slight sourness, but it always has caramel and syrup to make the cake moist. You’ll find this dessert all around the country at corner-side cafes to high-end restaurants in Johannesburg.

As with any food, each chef has a different way of doing it. The Malva pudding is traditionally topped with apricot jam but oftentimes you can find apricot on the side cut up into pieces. In fairness, I think this is what gives the more acidic or bitter flavor. In any case, it is absolutely delicious and worth trying (probably a few times).

2. Milk tart (or Melktert)

The South African milk tart is a pie pastry with cinnamon on top. It’s not too sweet or bitter but rather a two-in-one flavor profile. This dessert is loved by South Africans so much that there is now an official National Milk Tart Day held on February 27 of each year. But when you have your first bite of South African milk tart, you’ll be at the next National Milk Tart Day with bells and whistles on.

South Africans like to get a little bit creative with their milk tart given that it’s the de facto national dessert. Aside from the different shapes and sizes (and the latte-like tart art), you’ll also find innovative desserts that take the milk tart flavor and turn it into something special like milk tart-flavored donuts at markets like Neighbourgoods Market in Cape Town.

3. Koesisters

Koesisters are a South African sweet of Cape Malay origin. They are dense donuts that are unique in flavor and texture. You shouldn’t expect a donut as you know it – it’s chewier because of the syrup. The strongest flavor is cinnamon, and the usual recipe also includes cardamom, ginger powder and aniseed. It’s usually rolled in desiccated coconut just for that extra bit of flavor.

Local tip: Get your koesister piping hot. The flavor really changes when it cools down because the sugar solidifies.

Koesisters are one of those desserts that kind of take you by surprise, if for no other reason than they look like something you think you know, but the flavor is quite difficult. Make sure you keep an eye out for them during your travels.

What is the difference between koeksisters and koesisters?

One letter makes all the difference here. Koeksisters (colloquially known as twisties to differentiate them from the seemingly more prominent koesisters) are the Dutch or Afrikaans version of the donut that is twisted and deep fried to create a crispy texture. Koesisters are more similar in shape to a donut as we know it, and have a cinnamon-laden flavor.

If you’re on a mission to try all of the best South African sweets, you’ll need to make sure you try koesisters and koeksisters.

4. Snowballs

Snowballs are a fairly uncommon South African sweet that you’ll need to keep a special eye out for (or go to Neighbourgoods Market on the weekend in Cape Town). The icing is usually hard and the center is closer to being a cookie than a cake (though sometimes it can be more cake-like). And, of course, there is a generous rolling around in desiccated coconut.

5. Bollas

Another gift of Cape Malay cuisine, bollas are thick and heavy deep-fried ovals of vanilla cake batter. There is a strong flavor of buttermilk and orange zest which gives bollas a unique flavor that you won’t easily find in other desserts. Like a lot of other Cape Malay desserts, bollas are also rolled in desiccated coconut.

6. Nougat and caramel sandwich

Cape Town seems to love sandwiches, whether sweet or savoury. There has to be one sweet sandwich to rule them all, and our pick is Ma Mère’s nougat and caramel sandwich. It’s hardly the most traditional dessert in South Africa, but this is a list of the best South African sweets – and Ma Mère’s confection very much deserves a spot. The team hails from Cape Town and is proud of their nougat-based desserts.

7. Melkkos

Melkkos is one of those desserts that you will almost certainly unconsciously overlook on a menu in South Africa (if you manage to find it) but you really shouldn’t if you like rice pudding or porridge, though melkkos might be a lumpier version. Rice pudding is just for comparison, though. Melkkos is more akin to fettucine-like pancake strips drenched in warm milk and topped with cinnamon

There is also a Cape Malay dish named boeber that is similar and has become more well-known than melkkos. After trying both, melkkos was the clear winner.

8. Hertzog cookies

Affectionality known as hertzoggies, this is South African sweet is a jam-filled cookie or tartlet topped with coconut meringue and usually accompanied by tea. They’re reasonably common in South African bakeries but you won’t generally find them in restaurants (except in some cafes in Bo-Kaap). The most delicious part of hertzoggies is that the coconut meringue on top is kind of cotton-like in texture.

There is also a similar cookie called the Jan Smuts cookie which substitute the meringue for creamed butter and sugar, but the hertzoggie is much more delicious because of that coconut meringue.

And if you want more South African food, we’ve got you covered on the South African foods you must try.


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