South Africa’s twist on deep-fried street food

Posted on 14 April 2021

Deep-fried food is comfort food, regardless of where you are in the world. Louzel Lombarsd Steyn unravels SA’s own twist on giving the golden treatment.

The crowd-pleasing gatsby place in Rylands Estate, Cape Town

For the boarding school kids of the Platteland, Fridays will forever mean that extra bit of excitement. It was a day that meant – if good behaviour allowed – a home weekend of comfort home-cooked food. For some, this was a classic weekend braai or mom’s famous malva pudding with ice-cream. In our valley, Fridays were celebrated with ‘vetkoek-en-kerrie’, expertly and affectionately made by the amagwinya queen of our farming community, Marie Pokpas.

Every Friday morning, Marie would mix a batch of dough big enough to feed the farm, and then some. A generous handful of sugar in the dough was her secret weapon, ensuring a deep caramel crust around the clouds of bread as they sizzled away in the bubbling fat. Marie would let rise and knock down the dough several times throughout the morning. And when school came out, she started baking. She timed it perfectly so that by the time we arrived on the farm – an hours’ drive from town – golden brown pillows of crunchy, fluffy dough were being flicked out of the hot oil and into a gigantic enamel bowl to cool down. As soon as they landed, the vetkoek were snatched up by a pack of elated kids and tossed between palms while a mock-furious Marie chased us around her kitchen, fork aloft.

I’m yet to find a meal more satisfying than a plain amagwinya, fresh from the oil… the food of the gods.

For cultures throughout history, fried food has always held great significance. The early vetkoek features prominently in the big religions. In the Bible, King David’s daughter Tamar is described making Zalabiyeh; deep-fried dough parcels eaten in Canaan as early as the second millennium, BC. In modern-day Iran, a sweet treat called Zolbiya, similar to the Zalabiyeh, is traditionally eaten during Ramadan. The treat is served with either honey or sugar syrup for sweetness.

This addition of a sugar-syrup to freshly-fried dough is nothing new for South Africans. Here, we throw in some spices and toasted coconut and call it a koeksister, or plait the dough before frying and then dip it in a semi-frozen sugar-syrup for the Afrikaans version, Die Koeksister. Starchy, deep-fried South African classics aren’t always dough, though. In Cape Town, the global French fry phenomenon is flagrantly upstaged by a lekkerder local favourite: slap tjips. This salt-and-vinegar combination of soft chips with crispy-fried edges is often enjoyed as a carrier for fried fish wrapped in unprinted newspaper. But real slap chips shine at their brightest when sprinkled with peri-peri spice and stacked on a classic steak masala with egg full-size gatsby. It’s also the very best hangover cure on the market… for those who remembered to stock up for the weekend before the weekly Thursday shutdown!

Health matters aside, fried food will fill a hole in your soul regardless of what you dip in the deep-fryer… be it potatoes, dough or even those Eastern Cape deep-fried chicken heads and feet called Walkie Talkies. Crunch!

Here are some of the best deep-fried digs in Mzansi

Masala steak gatsby

The Greatest Gatsby

Gatsby joints are sacred realms in Cape Town, and mentioning a favourite is like choosing a favourite child. The Golden Dish in Rylands is a classic spot and regular hangout among locals so you’re guaranteed to find good quality here. The chips are slap and well-seasoned, the steak well-cooked and the wrapping paper sturdy enough to hold any fall-out pieces that can be picked on later. 021 633 7864

Where: Gatesville Shopping Centre, 1 Hazel Rd & Klipfontein Rd, Gatesville, Cape Town


Holy Dough

Deep-fried Do-Fills are South Africa’s answer to churros, but better. These strips of scone-like pastry are deep-fried on demand and then the centre is filled with sweet Caramel Treat. They’re childhood dreams come true, best enjoyed fresh and hot.

As all great treasures, Do-Fills are notoriously elusive. The custom-built frying carts and their vendors often travel to shows and fairs throughout the country, so you need to search for them at festivals. Fortunately, a permanent Do-Fill shop is now open in
Jeffreys Bay in the Eastern Cape, serving the deep-fried drug year-round. 082 876 1149

Where: St Francis Drive, Fountains Mall, Jeffrey’s Bay, Eastern Cape

Kamikaze Fries

Kamikaze Fries

In a time of new-age mashed potato, moulded fries and overly processed pre-cooked food, real potato chips are hard to come by. The old Highlander Pub at the Royal St Andrews Hotel in Port Alfred knows this, which is why people plan their holidays around their Kamikaze fries: a heap of real, twice-cooked potato chips stacked on a board and loaded with hot-as-hell chillies, a secret signature spice, roasted garlic and chilli oil and served with homemade aioli and wedges of lemon.

These are old-fashioned potato chips like your Ouma used to make… but on steroids. 046 604 5400.

Where: 19 St Andrews Rd, Port Alfred, Sunshine Coast, Eastern Cape


Amagwinya Ninjas

Fresh amagwinya are sold across South Africa at any self-respecting taxi rank, train station or just about anywhere three people or more are gathered (and often awaiting transport). Small plastic bags stuffed with three or four vetkoek often go for as little as R10 a packet. But don’t be fooled, these humble little cakes have meant a livelihood for countless entrepreneurs and mothers who have taken their gift of making good food and kept their families on the go with it. Vendors often sell kerbside, making them hard to pin to an exact location. There’s a trusted seller under the trees in Heerengracht Street, Cape Town, just outside the Cape Town train station, for example. And a particular favourite spot next to the N2 Stop in Mount Ayliff en route to Kokstad in KwaZulu-Natal.

Kalk Bay Harbour, home of Kalky’s

Deep Sea

Fried fish tastes better by the waterside, and little comes closer to the ocean than at the fishermen’s favourite, Kalky’s. You simply cannot go wrong with perfectly fried seafood laid on a bed of slap chips and carried over crowds on stainless steel platters. The best part is you can smell the ocean and see how the fresh bounty is carried off the boats as you eat. If you can take the train to Kalk Bay, even better.

The trick at Kalky’s is to not get too fancy, this isn’t the place for diet food. In fact, a grilled option will cost you R5 extra. It’s best to just order the fried fish and chips and get on with it. And be prepared to wait as queues can be long, especially in peak season.
021 788 1726

Where: Kalk Bay Harbour, Kalk Bay, Western Cape

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