Potato, avocado and green onion salad. Picture: Jennifer Bruce
The salads and side dishes that South Africans enjoy are as authentic as any homegrown dish.

There is a rich legacy and history, deeply rooted in the traditional potato salad, sambal, beetroot and three beans dishes. The way we prepare our salads and the ingredients we instinctively choose is uniquely South African.

Chef and Cape Malay Cuisine expert Cass Abrahams says it’s a history that we can be proud.

“Salads the way we know them today were never like this before, and it has changed over the years,” she says.

Centuries ago, the African and coloured families in SA scoffed at the idea of green salads and it was not uncommon to hear the expression “Ek eet nie blare nie” (I don’t eat leaves) when they were presented with lettuce or rocket as a side dish.

Back then there was no refrigeration in kitchens and buying lettuce and tomatoes was a luxury because if it wasn’t prepared and eaten within 24 hours it was a waste.

Abrahams who is now over 70 years old says: “I remember when I first tasted wild rocket, it was growing in the garden and the thought of using it in a salad never occured to me.”

“The salads from those days could be pickled and put into jars - like beetroot salad,” she says.

Salads served two main purposes back then, it needed to provide for many people and it had to be preserved without refrigeration. Vinegar was key in the salad because leftovers needed to be kept for long periods and it was quite normal to see a row of colourful, tightly sealed jars of salads perched atop kitchen shelves.

With many Malay families landing the Cape, they still wanted a taste of home and spices were used liberally in salads and side dishes says Abrahams.

“For instance the sambals was always seasonal fruit and veg, finely chopped and then seasoned, in places like Indonesia the spices were readily available in people’s gardens”.
Slaphakskeentjies. PIcture: 7de Laan vier fees by NB Publishers
Over the years as our needs and grocery lists changed salads adapted and some became obsolete. Slaphakskeentjies was one of the side dishes that hasn’t stood the test of time. Consisting of pickling onions, eggs, milk or cream and of course vinegar; it was a staple decades ago as a side dish.

Abrahams is loathe to agree that SA salads need to be modernised to adapt to 21 century meals and diets.  “There is still nothing better than a roast, yellow rice and beetroot salad,” she says.
This is a sentiment which many would agree with because there is a familiarity in the traditional salads that have become staples in SA homes.