Bobotie, a savory-sweet mash-up of ground meat, spices and egg, the bedrock of Cape Malay cuisine

Bobotie, a savory-sweet mash-up of ground meat, spices and egg, the bedrock of Cape Malay cuisine Aussies have Vegemite, South Africans have Bovril. Here, the yeast extract is slathered on rye South Africans take their barbecue (braai) seriously. Here, your typical weekday backyard session Crispy Malay-style fishcakes with spicy fruit chutney Lightly smoked river trout with potato salad and raw onions Droëwors: Not beef jerky, but awfully close Capetonians are a carnivorous bunch. Here, a textbook Parisian-style steak frites with melted herb butter from HQ Sweet potato raviolo with brown butter and rosemary Chicken braai in the Bo Kaap, center of Cape Malay culture Bobotie from Biesmiellah, a Cape Malay institution The burger boom has officially landed in Cape Town. Here, an ostrich burger with beet relish from Royale Lamb briyani, part of a seemingly endless feast celebrating Muharram, one of the most important dates of the Shiite calendar Lobster, the star of a special occasion curry Kassim’s daughter’s special chicken, consisting of potatoes, ketchup, chutney and “at least five or six other ingredients I’m not going to reveal” Our lovely hosts for the evening Cape Malays have an impressive sweet tooth. A dozen desserts are rolled out after the three-hour dinner The Great Gatsby, a light snack of french fries, piri piri sauce and your choice of meat stuffed into a 12-inch roll Soft scramble eggs, roasted tomatoes and boerewors from Cafe Olympia in Fish Hoek. The line cooks are egg whisperers Flat white, the drink of choice for Cape Town’s caffeine heads. Bigger than a macchiato but smaller than a latte, with a velvety cap of microfoam The many colors of the curry rainbow found at Cape Town’s Eastern Food Bazaar Perlemoen (aka abalone) sauteed with onions, peppers, cheese and special sauce—a $2 snack served from a roadside stand outside Cape Town Steak and beer pie Steak, lamb chops and boerewors from Mzoli’s, legendary braai haven of the Gugulethu township Made from ground mielie-meal (corn) and water, pap is a vital staple for the country’s poorer communities Farmed abalone, pulled live from the water and briefly sauteed Indian food is ubiquitous around Cape Town, but Bukhara serves some of the best tandoori fare you’ll find anywhere The buttery cracks and crevices of a perfectly-cooked piece of garlic naan Lentils as rich and buttery as a lobe of melted foie gras Passionfruit cocktail, the beginning of a long, boozy meal at Cape Town’s The Test Kitchen Cabbage three ways: raw, powdered, and infused into a dashi, along with chunks of raw tuna Raw aged beef with miso-cured egg and gorgonzola cream Lightly-cooked sea trout with eggplant and a mirin-dashi broth Roasted suckling pig with crispy bread, oats, and honey Bunny chow, a specialty from Durban involving a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with spicy lamb curry Massive snappy-skinned hot dog tucked into a warm pretzel roll Grilled crayfish bathed in garlic butter, part of an epic beachside braai Grilled snoek, the bony, fatty South African fish often compared to barracuda Fish curry cooked over the coals Koeksisters, one of the emblematic sweets of the Cape Malay community. Soaked in syrup and dusted in coconut, they’re best in the early hours A meal of mourning: chicken and rice served after a funeral in the Western Cape winelands Dinner on BA Flight 97: chicken in mystery sauce, powdered mash, and pasta salad—washed down with three mini bottles of red wine

There is no easy way to describe the food of a country with a history as complicated as South Africa’s. Take a stroll around the City Bowl in the heart of Cape Town and you can begin to get a sense of the incredible convergence of cultural and economic forces that influence the menu of the day: Cape Malay restaurants serving up the spice-inflected staples brought across the Indian Ocean during the days of slavery; tiny takeout stands dishing up starchy staples like pap and samp and beans for a few rands a plate; hipster burger joints flipping patties made from kudu, ostrich and grass-fed beef destined to be washed down with designer cocktails.

It might feel like a culinary identity crisis, until you consider that this enormous diversity, all there to be consumed within a few short city blocks, is what makes this country what it is.

We may not have sampled the whole of the Cape cornucopia, but we certainly put a good dent in it. We ate abalone wraps from a roadside stand run by an unemployed woman looking for a new path in life. We feasted on great mountains of grilled proteins (called braai in these parts) from a township institution with smoke and fire in its soul. We staggered through an awe-inspiring homemade feast with a Muslim family generous enough to invite two complete strangers into their home during a very special religious celebreation.

In this slideshow you’ll find 42 of the most interesting dishes we came across during out time in South Africa. And yet even after two weeks of prodigious consumption, no clear definition for South African food comes to mind. But that’s exactly what makes this country so damn beautiful.