South African Cuisine: Smiley (Fire-Roasted Goat Head) and Other Specialties

Leopard (not on the menu). Photo by Johanna Read

Smiley.  A lovely word.  A not so lovely dish.

I’m in southern Africa.  This is more of a seeing animals trip than an eating animals trip, but how can I resist the opportunity to eat something I’ve never had before?

Many people have told me to keep an eye out for smiley.  “Cool – I’m a smiley person,” I say.  “What’s smiley?”  I’m thinking of foods that make me smile: dark chocolate and raspberries; lamb-sicles; gelato from Il Crispino in Rome; street food in Luang Prabang, Laos; passion fruit anything, twice-fried French fries with truffled ketchup …..

Then I’m told smiley is the head of a sheep or a goat, brains and eyeballs included, that is cooked over a fire so that its lips pull back into a smile. Yum.

Hmmmm.  Maybe I’m not as much of a smiley person as I thought.
But I am a chatty person. I ask almost everyone I meet in South Africa and Namibia what they like to eat and what I should make sure I try while I’m visiting.  Several mention smiley. Thankfully, they mention other things too.

Biltong is dried beef (sometimes oryx, kudu or ostrich), similar to beef jerky. Photo by Johanna Read

I meet up with LaurenCohen — a new friend originally met on Twitter — to have dinner at one of the many fine restaurants in Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.  The Waterfront is both a working harbor and a hub for eating, shopping and entertainment, for tourists and locals alike.  Tonight we try Tasca De Belem, which serves authentic Portuguese and Turkish — mains and tapas / meze.  We sit outside with a view of the quay (with heat lamps and blankets available – it is July, i.e. mid-winter, after all).  I eat fabulous tuna, barely seared as ordered, with a delicious Portuguese prego sauce – garlic, cumin and chili pepper goodness.  I love that the sustainability and source of each fish are described on the menu.

Of course the discussion is a lot about food, and about South African specialties  and Lauren mentions biltong.  “Bull tongue?!” I ask, thinking of a variation of smiley.  No.  If you’ve ever had beef jerky, then you’ve eaten the very poor cousin of biltongBiltong is dried beef (sometimes oryx, kudu or ostrich) and comes in sausage form as well as thinly sliced.  It is way more flavorful and much better-textured than beef jerky.  Lauren treats us to both from the City Grill Steakhouse, a couple doors down.

Having gorged myself at dinner, I save the biltong for the next day’s patkos – Afrikaans for road food — for my trip to the Cape of Good Hope.  It is much appreciated after the 159 meter stair climb up to the lighthouse on an empty stomach.


It is surprisingly not that hard to spend your days in Namibian animal reserves looking at game and spend your evenings eating it. No, I didn’t eat leopard, cheetah, elephant or anything like that.  But oryx, kudu and eland are all delicious.  They are all beautiful too (and raised sustainably).

What do they taste like?  No – not like chicken!  But a lot like beef.  The oryx is the most delicious — like a dry-aged steak, both lean and juicy at the same time.  Maybe a bit like lamb chops.  Kudu is similar, but not as flavorful and drier.  And eland even more so.

I’ll order oryx again if I ever see it on a menu, but will probably skip the kudu and eland. They’re better lion food anyway.

Malva pudding from Tasca restaurant. Photo by Johanna Read

Malva pudding

Pudding — nothing to be nervous about with dessert!  Malva pudding — a traditional South African dish, adopted from the Dutch — is a pudding in the English sense of the word.  It is a cake with sauce, served warm, resembling sticky toffee pudding.

Every Malva pudding I try (and there are several) is different.  I prefer the warmer stickier ones to the cooler drier ones.  The taste is somewhat like a caramel cake.  I had to check recipes to see what gives it that unique flavor – apricot jam of all things.  Regardless of where you are in the world, you should be able to find the ingredients to make this one at home (see recipe below).

And the smiley?

Well, lucky for me I never did come across the smiley. After seeing photos I can’t say I’m too upset over it.
Next time, Africa!

Maggie’s Malva Pudding (serves 6)

Michael Olivier, Cape Town’s Wine and Food Guru, says that this is the benchmark malva pudding recipe.  It is by Maggie Pepler and served at the Boschendal Restaurant.  For more info see his site.

1 cup flour
1 tablespoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tablespoon apricot jam
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 talespoon melted butter
1 cup milk

½ cup cream
½ cup milk
1 cup sugar
½ cup hot water
½ cup butter

Preheat oven to 180°C / 350°F.
With butter, grease an ovenproof dish approximately 30cm X 20cm X 5cm.  Glass or ceramic best — do not use an aluminium, enamel or metal container.  Cut a piece of aluminium foil to cover the dish, and grease it well with butter on one side.

Sift the flour and the baking soda into a bowl and stir in the sugar.
In another bowl beat the egg very well and add the remaining wet cake ingredients one by one, beating well between each addition.
Using a wooden spoon beat the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix well.

Pour the batter into the prepared dish, cover with the foil, greased side down, and bake 45 minutes until well risen and brown.  Bake a further five minutes without the foil if not sufficiently brown.  Be careful not to under-bake: if not sufficiently baked the dessert will not soak up all the sauce.
When the pudding is almost done, heat the ingredients for the sauce, ensuring that you melt all the sugar and butter.
When the pudding is done, remove from the oven, take off the foil and pour over the sauce.

Serve hot, warm or at room temperature, though the warmer the better.  If desired, serve with some whipped cream or vanilla custard.

Johanna Read

About Johanna Read

TravelEater, aka Johanna Read, is a Canadian who loves travelling and loves eating, but hates eating tourist food. She collects -- and shares -- advice about eating around the world (and about what to do between snacks). Johanna is World Travel Buzz's new International Eating Expert and will be writing a monthly column.