Make it a flat white. It’s the drink of choice amongst South Africa’s serious caffeine heads, and for good reason. It’s like the lovechild of a macchiato and a latte, a perfect balance of dense, bitter espresso and a tight milky cap of what meticulous baristas call microfoam. It drinks like a velvet jacket soaked in espresso. In Cape Town, places like Jason’s and Deluxe serve exceptional coffee, but we’ll take ours from the Department of Coffee in Khayelitsha, an awesome and unlikely township coffeeshop where flat whites go for 8R, about half of what they cost in the City Bowl.
Learn donkeys of new words. South Africa has 11 official languages, a head-spinning mix of European and tribal dialects that span the entire spectrum of human tonal capability. They also contribute a rich stew of slang that permeates all of South Africa, regardless of mother tongue. Here’s a quick primer on some of the most useful words:
Ag (a-ch): The South African equivalent of a Homer Simpson d’oh!
Braai: barbecue or grill, both as noun and verb. Jason’s having a braai over at his place. Yep, he’s going to braai up some lovely springbok loins.
Bra/bru: Terms of basic male endearment, along the lines of brother or dude.
Donkeys: lots or loads
Howzit? How’s it going, contracted. The standard greeting throughout South Africa, and the easiest and most immediate way to demonstrate that you’re paying attention. The Coloured variation is Hoeziet (who-zeet)
Just now: Maybe in five minutes, maybe in a couple days. “I’ll be over just now.”
Lekker: Cool! Nice! Great! All of the above, used with amazing frequency to describe everything from an astounding rugby play to a plan to get wasted and watch
Robot: traffic light
Stompie: cigarette butt
Yebo: Yes in Zulu, but used colloquially by most everyone.
Smiley: It’s not a state of being or an emoticon, but rather, a boiled sheep’s head, a staple in the Xhosa diet. Or, as R&K contributor Michael Idov refers to them, little nightmares.
Pay the meter men. They’re a ubiquitous force on the city streets of South Africa, waiting for you every time you open or close your car door. Some of those guys are official, others are not. Either way, a few rand will go a long way to making sure your wheels are in good hands while you’re off drinking flat whites, buying spices and employing your list of South African slang. Our guy in the Bo Kaap, who liked to be called Car (actually short for Abubakr, his real name), not only cleaned and kept watch over our rental, but also became a vital source of information during our time in the neighborhood. The informal economy is an important part of South African life; do what you can to help the hustle.
Take the spice route. The Cape Malays have created their own unique brand of cooking, one with influences that stretch from Amsterdam to New Delhi. The one common theme binding this culinary mash-up is the aggressive use of spices in most traditional dishes. Not so much heat, but warm, sweet and savory notes from spices like black mustard, cardamom and fenugreek, and blends like garam masala and curry powders. You can taste them in action at restaurants like Noon Gun or Biesmiellah, Bo Kaap staples serving up spice-driven dishes like bobotie and denning vleis. But the nerve center of the spice trade is the Atlas Trading Company, where the Ahmed family has been pushing seeds, powders, pods and for over five decades. Stop by and pick up their famous leaf masala, a pungent 12-spice blend that travels better than any souvenir you’ll find elsewhere in town.