5 Common South African Spices

    Africa is known for its diverse range of spices and herbs, and South Africa is no exception. South Africa includes countries like Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, and, of course, South Africa itself. What makes South African spices stand out is their unique aroma and flavor. These spices add distinctive tastes and aroma to South African dishes, making them an integral part of the nation’s cuisine and lifestyle.

    In this article, we’ll take a closer look at various South African spices that anyone, regardless of their origin, can use in their cooking. Let’s explore the essence of these spices that define the flavors of South Africa, each having its distinct characteristics and significance.

    South African spices are a mix of herbs, seeds, and seasonings. From indigenous ingredients to influences from India and Europe, they have been utilized for generations to elevate the taste and aroma of dishes across the nation. South African spices are not mere condiments, but they also reflect the culture of the people, just like in other African countries. 

    5 Common Indigenous South African Spices 


    Peri peri spice comes from the Swahili word “pili pili,” which means “pepper pepper.” While it is used throughout Africa, it is most associated with Southern African cuisine, particularly Mozambique and South Africa. The spice is believed to have been introduced to Africa by Portuguese explorers who brought chili peppers from the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries.

    African spices
    African spices

    Peri peri could also be spelled as “piri piri” or “pili pili,” It is known for its intense heat and bold flavor. It is often used in various dishes, marinades, and sauces. The African bird’s eye chili pepper (Capsicum frutescens) is a major ingredient in peri peri spice. These small, fiery peppers are known for their intense heat, ranging from 50,000 to 175,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU) or even higher, making them one of the spiciest chili peppers in the world.

    The specific blend of peri peri may vary from one recipe to another, giving spice mix its unique flavor. Still, the common ingredients used are dried and ground bird’s eye chili peppers and other ingredients like garlic, salt, lemon juice, vinegar, and various herbs and spices such as paprika, oregano, and thyme. 

    It is most commonly associated with marinating chicken, especially in dishes like “peri peri chicken” or “piri piri chicken,” where the spice blend is combined with olive oil and used as a marinade. However, it can also be used with other meats, seafood, vegetables, and even as a condiment or dipping sauce. Peri peri is also a healthy choice because of the presence of capsaicin, which is advantageous to the body.

    Bay Leaf

    Bay leaves have been used in South African cooking for centuries and are integral to the country’s culinary heritage. They are used in a variety of traditional South African dishes, imparting their unique aroma and flavor.

    Bay leaves are typically dark green, oval-shaped leaves with a glossy appearance. They are tough and not meant to be eaten; instead, they are used to infuse dishes with their subtle flavor and aroma. Bay leaves are known for their slightly sweet and herbal scent with a hint of bitterness.

    South African spices

    Bay leaves are commonly used in South African cuisine to season and flavor a variety of dishes. They are frequently added to soups and stews, including popular South African dishes like bobotie (a spiced meat casserole) and bredie (a hearty meat and vegetable stew). Bay leaves are also used in marinades, rice dishes, and sauces, where they are typically simmered along with other ingredients to release their flavor.

    Bay leaves are versatile and can be used in both meat and vegetarian dishes. Bay leaves are used for their culinary appeal and potential health benefits. They contain compounds like essential oils and antioxidants that may have anti-inflammatory and digestive properties. However, they are typically used in small quantities, so their health benefits are more supplementary.

    Bay leaves are widely available in South African markets and grocery stores. They can be purchased as whole dried leaves or in ground form. Fresh bay leaves are also used when available. If properly stored, bay leaves can last several months to a year.

    Durban Curry Powder

    Durban curry powder is a distinctive South African spice blend from Durban, a city in KwaZulu-Natal. This flavorful spice mixture is known for its unique combination of aromatic and savory spices, which are used to prepare the highly popular South African dish known as Durban curry or Durban chicken curry. It is particularly associated with the Indian community in Durban, which has a history back to the 19th century when Indian laborers were brought to South Africa to work on sugar cane plantations.

    The exact composition of Durban curry powder can vary from one recipe to another, but it typically includes a blend of spices and herbs. Common ingredients include coriander, cumin, fennel seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black peppercorns, fenugreek seeds, and dried red chili peppers. Durban curry powder is prepared by dry-roasting the spices and grinding them into a fine powder. 

    Beyond its use in traditional curry dishes, Durban curry powder can also be used as a seasoning for grilled meats, roasted vegetables, and even in marinades or spice rubs. Its versatility makes it a valuable addition to any spice collection.

    Braai Salt

    Braai salt is commonly known as “braai spice” or “braai seasoning,” a South African spice blend closely associated with the traditional South African method of cooking known as “braai.” Braai is similar to barbecue, and it involves grilling meat over an open flame or hot coals. Braai salt is an essential seasoning for grilled meats.

    Common ingredients used in making braai salt may include salt, pepper, garlic powder, paprika, coriander, and dried herbs. Braai salt is often prepared by blending and grinding the selected spices and seasonings to create a fine powder. The proportions of each ingredient can vary according to personal preferences and regional variations.

    Braai salt is mainly used to season meat before grilling. It is often rubbed onto the meat’s surface, allowing the spices and seasonings to infuse the meat with their flavors. Common meats seasoned with braai salt include beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and sausages. Some people use it as a seasoning for roasted vegetables and potatoes or even as an addition to marinades and sauces.

    Braai salt is widely available in South Africa, and it can be found in various forms, including pre-packaged spice blends or homemade mixtures. It is also used beyond South Africa. Some variations may include additional ingredients like dried herbs, chili flakes, or smoked paprika to create unique flavor profiles.

    Cape Malay Curry Powder

    Cape Malay curry powder is a unique South African spice blend that originates from the Cape Malay community in South Africa, particularly in the Western Cape region. It includes a blend of spices that reflects the multicultural influences of the Cape Malay community. Corn, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, fennel seeds, dried red chili peppers, and turmeric are common ingredients. 

    Cape Malay curry powder is prepared by dry-roasting the spices and grinding them into a fine powder. The use of spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves imparts a warm and fragrant quality to the blend, while turmeric gives it a bright yellow color and a subtle earthiness.

    It is often used in dishes like Cape Malay chicken curry, bobotie (a spiced minced meat dish topped with an egg-based custard), and biryani (a fragrant rice dish). It is also used in soups, stews, and various vegetable dishes.

    Other South African Spices

    Widely used spices and seasonings such as paprika, coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger, and garlic are also used in South African dishes, adding their distinct flavors and aromas. In South African cooking, paprika adds smoky depth to grilled meats, while coriander and cumin are used for stew and soup. Turmeric is are always complemented with ginger and garlic. These seasonings are important in South African cuisine.

    What is the Most Expensive Spice in South Africa?

    Saffron is the most expensive spice in South Africa, primarily due to its labor-intensive harvesting process and scarcity. Although it is not grown in South Africa, it is one of the most used imported spices in the region. Hand-picked from the Crocus sativus flower’s red stigmas, saffron’s high cost is attributed to the need for a large number of flowers to produce even a small amount. Despite its expense, saffron is used sparingly in South African dishes, adding a floral aroma and subtle flavor to rice dishes, curries, and stews.

    Adding South African spices into your diet can promote health and wellness. Their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties support the immune system and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. South African spices make nutritious meals more appealing and encourage a balanced diet. They also aid digestion.


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