South African Heritage Dessert Origins

Words: Devon Bowers

South African desserts are a big part of our culture because we are definitely the nation of sweet tooths and rich food. I mean, what else would we be eating after a lovely Sunday lunch with the family? There are dishes that trigger happy childhood memories, and for us South Africans, it could be any one of these traditional and classic desserts unique to our beautiful country. But, have you wondered how these puddings came about? Grab a seat and get to know the origins of some of our favourite South African desserts.


South African Desserts

Malva Pudding — spongy, rich, fluffy, warm, indulgent and just delicious! It’s a cake that’s sweetened with apricot preserve and leavened with baking soda and vinegar. But, what makes this dessert that more delicious, is the custard it’s drenched in just before serving.

This dessert has deep roots with families having passed down their traditional recipes through the generations. That being said, this iconic dish isn’t as old as you might think… there was a similar kind of pudding with the same name around 1924. The only difference is that the alternative was boiled and not baked. It also lacked the addition of apricot jam that’s found in malva.

The earliest record of this malva pudding can be traced to 1978. Food writer and previous PR Manager at Boschendal Wine Estate, Michael Olivier, once asked his friend, Maggie Pepler, to step in for the head-chef. Pepler, prepared her recipe for malva pudding and it was such a hit that the marvellous dessert adorned the menu for 34 years. From there, the sticky treat became popular and commercially available at local (and even some American) restaurants.

Recipe for Mini Malva Puddings


amagwinya recipe

Whether you call it ‘amagwinya’ or ‘vetkoek’, this leavened and deepfried dough is downright delicious! The Zulu and Afrikaans nomenclature both translate to ‘fat cake’. Amagwinya is believed to have Dutch roots and is similar to the Dutch Oliebollen, which was eventually brought to South Africa through slaves and traders.

You can normally buy it from vendors, it’s also great as padkos, but you’re likely to find that the best vetkoek is the homemade kind. The key to great vetkoek is a golden-brown crisp exterior, with a fluffy and deliciously warm inside. It should also be light, yet firm enough to hold filling and when pressed it should spring back to its original shape.

This treat is more traditionally filled with savoury ingredients such as curried mince, fish ‘n slaptjips, and just about anything depending on what you like. Amagwinya also doubles up as a sweet treat, and is normally filled with peanut butter, syrup, strawberry or apricot jam.

We’ve created a slightly different, yet equally tasty recipe: Amagwinya with Chocolate Crème Pâtissière & Cherries.


When you think ‘local desserts’, none seem quintessentially more South African than the humble Milk Tart. The flavour has become so synonymous with South African culture, and you’ll struggle to find a South African who doesn’t love it!

Melktert (Milk Tart) is said to have originated from the Dutch-settlers who arrived in Cape Town in the 1600s. The milky filling is a giveaway, as these settlers were dairy farmers – to those pioneers, we are forever grateful!

There are lots of variations of Milk Tart but our top honours go to the fridge version — a smooth, creamy milk custard set in a crumbly biscuit base. It has just the right amount of jiggle and a whisper of cinnamon on top. It’s perfection and that’s all there is to it. Try our Deep Dish Condensed Milk Tart for double the deliciousness!

Curious about this local fave? Read more about the Origins of Milk Tart here.


To understand where this favourite dessert came from, we first need to look at where the now famous Peppermint Crisp chocolate bar (used in this this dessert) was created. What makes this truly South African is that the iconic chocolate was invented here! Wilson Rowntree, originally created it in the 1960s, however, it is now produced by Nestlé, who acquired them.

What is even more amazing is how people got creative with it and made the most mouth-watering ‘local is lekker’ dessert. The classic Peppermint Crisp tart is a dessert just about every South African would have had. The recipe is basic and all you need to make it is Tennis Biscuits, tinned caramel, heavy cream and, of course, Peppermint Crisp chocolate. If it sounds heart-stoppingly sweet, that’s because it is. But, this dessert remains a popular minty choice, nonetheless. Here’s hoping the Peppermint Crisp chocolate never meets its ending, like the discontinued Chocolate Log — it would cause a national outcry!

Don’t quite like tart? Try our Peppermint Crisp Cake or Peppermint Crisp Cups, which are both delish versions of this iconic dessert.


South African Desserts

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South Africa has two types of this dessert — the Afrikaans version (koeksister) and the Cape Malay version (koe’sister) — both are equally delicious. The Afrikaans version is pictured above, on the left, and the Cape Malay version is pictured on the right.

Every South African knows what a koeksister is and the best way to have it — with a cup of coffee, on a beautiful Sunday morning. It’s the ultimate heavenly treat! From the syrup to the crisp exterior to the comfortingly doughy interior, this braided treat really does make the perfect bite. The Afrikaans koeksister has quite an interesting past. Interestingly, two recipes were brought to the Cape by Dutch settlers. One was for a fried doughnut-like treat and the other was for a thin bowtie-like dessert made out of pasta dough. Some genius thought to combine the two recipes and began braiding the dough instead of leaving it in a little ball. The process is quite tricky and takes a lot of practice to get the perfect koeksister. Luckily, those less-than-perfect ones taste great too. Try our Traditional Koeksisters recipe.

As for the Cape Malay version, it is exceptionally popular and a long-standing tradition to share koe’sisters among family, for breakfast. Koe’sisters originate from communities in areas like Bo-Kaap and District Six (long before Apartheid), but even today, the tradition lives on.

Koe’sisters are prepared from balls of yeast-leavened dough and spiced with cinnamon, aniseed, ginger, cardamom and dried orange or naartjie zest. The dough balls are deep-fried in oil, allowed to cool then dipped in homemade syrup and rolled in desiccated coconut. These flavours are reminiscent of Indonesian roots, most probably from slaves brought to the Cape.

For a lot of South Africans, koe’sisters are a deeply rooted part of food culture. They are not just a breakfast treat, but are a staple at almost every kind of event hosted. You will find these delectable doughnuts at funerals, parties, religious ceremonies and even graduation ceremonies. It is an ideal treat that brings everyone together. World Koe’sister Day, which was first celebrated Sunday, 1 September 2019, is now commemorated annually on the first Sunday of September.

Chef Naseer Abdullah, once said this about koe’sisters — “Whether you make them for others or enjoy them for yourself, it is a dish that will carry on for generations,” and we couldn’t agree more!


Another classic South African dessert is the hertzoggie. It’s always a favourite, from bake sale tables to church bazaars. To prepare one of these indulgences, start with an open top pastry base and fill with apricot jam. It should then be topped with desiccated or grated coconut meringue topping and baked.

Another fascinating history, the Hertzoggie came about after Prime Minister, J.B.M Hertzog promised to give women the vote and the coloured community equal rights. So, Cape Malay womxn created this treat in his honour. After a couple of years, the Women’s Enfranchisement Act of 1930 made it clear that only the first of these promises would be fulfilled. The women once again took to their ovens and created a new version of the tartlet. But, this version had brown and pink icing and decided they would call it ‘tweegevrietjie’ or ‘two-faced cake’. Now you know to never double cross South African womxn!


Making boeber is a Cape Malay tradition usually reserved for the 15th night of Ramadaan, which indicates the middle of the fast. Boeber is a rich, creamy and milky drink. This delicious dessert contains vermicelli, sago, cardamom, cinnamon and has Indonesian ties. But, wherever it came from, Cape Town has clearly adopted it as their own. Boeber is eaten all over the world and there are various versions. However you like it, make it your own! Try adding some rose water, almonds or pistachios.

What is also great about this delicacy is that it is uniquely made from family to family. If you don’t have a family recipe, but want to give it a try, there are boeber mixes available in certain supermarkets and spice shops all over South Africa. Either way, boeber should definitely be on your list of desserts to enjoy!


It might be a traditional dish for Christmas time, but who can resist a serving of Cape Brandy Pudding any time of the year? To not enjoy this rich, sweet and sticky heartwarming dessert simply because it’s not Christmas, would be a crime! Cape Brandy Pudding is also known as ‘Tipsy Tart’ or even ‘dadelpoeding’ (date pudding). Whatever you call it, it’s sticky, sweet and delish.

The heritage of this desert is intrinsically linked to brandy production in the Cape, which is big business. So much so, that for many years most of the Chenin Blanc grapes planted were predetermined to go to the brandy production. The dish is similar to that of malva, a baked pud with a sauce that soaks into the sponge. The major difference here, being the addition of dates, nuts and of course, brandy. It’s so simple to make and you can enjoy it with whipped cream, ice-cream or custard. Contrary to what the name suggests, the tart won’t make you tipsy. You’ll need an extra shot or even two, on the side for that!

For a taste of Christmas, try our Traditional Christmas Pudding with Drunk Cherries and Brandy Butter Sauce.


In the 1980s, there was a classic TV ad featuring Cremora — a powered, non-dairy coffee creamer.  After the advert was released, this successful dairy substitute was transformed into a household brand and before long, a new fridge tart was born. It might not seem like the best ingredient to use for a dessert, but many will surrender to the pleasure of the Cremora Tart upon their first bite.

The classic version is quick, easy and will satisfy your sweet-tooth. This tart is like the love child between a fridge tart and a cheesecake. All you need is a biscuit base, Cremora, water, condensed milk and lemon juice. Many have made the Cremora Tart their own and have taken it to the next level and you wouldn’t even know that Cremora was used. You’ll want to give this one a try, you won’t regret it!


‘Melkkos’, which translates to ‘milk food’, is a South African dessert that you may remember from childhood spent in your grandma’s kitchen. It is similar to boeber, but easier to make. The main ingredient is milk and you just need to add some flour and butter. To make it even better, sprinkle with a bit of cinnamon sugar on top! It can be enjoyed all year round but it is best enjoyed during winter ,as it warms you right up.

Check out our list of South African food pantry classics.

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