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What is Chakalaka?

By J. Leach
Updated May 16, 2024
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Chakalaka is a spicy dish from South Africa that is usually made from onions, tomatoes, and beans. In its earliest forms, the dish was a staple for those who lived in the townships of Johannesburg, South Africa. It was probably prepared with a simple and inexpensive spice mixture, but some variations have evolved into a more complex dish. There is some disagreement, however, over whether chakalaka is a dish or a condiment, but it does appear that the most people categorize it as a dish. It is possible to purchase a pre-made spice mix to make it.

To make a simple version of chakalaka, start by heating oil in a saucepan and adding chopped onion, garlic, and green bell pepper. The vegetables are cooked until the onions are translucent and then a curry mix and chili pepper are added. Cooks can either make their own curry mix — usually consisting of turmeric, coriander, cardamom, and cumin — or they can purchase a pre-mixed curry powder. A can of baked beans in tomato sauce is then added to the pan, and the whole mixture is allowed to heat through. The beans are not a necessary component, but they are a very common addition to many recipes.

Some believe that chakalaka is an important condiment for any barbecue, and this side dish is often paired with meat. There are many local variations, and many families have their own versions. Some recipes resemble a relish and, in these cases, it is more of a condiment than side dish.

Chakalaka is often associated with street food in South Africa because it can easily be served by vendors and enjoyed while on the go. It is usually served with some form of bread or starch, like mealie pap, which is also sometimes known simply as pap.

Mealie pap is a traditional cornmeal mush that is a staple for many South African people. It is similar to corn grits or polenta. Pap is usually combined with sauce-based dishes like chakalaka.

Preparing pap is simple, it is usually just a combination of water and cornmeal. If it is being served for breakfast, some of the water is replaced with milk, and sugar is added to sweeten it. The mixture is allowed to slowly simmer for about 45 minutes, until it is a thick porridge. A bit of butter is sometimes added after it is finished to help enhance the flavor. It is a popular complement to traditional South African barbecued meats.

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Discussion Comments

By burcinc — On Aug 04, 2011

Some international grocery stores carry chakalaka by the can. I buy the extra spicy one all the time. It has peppers and carrots in it but doesn't have beans. I guess it comes in many different varieties.

I love having this on top of meat or inside sandwiches like a sauce. I've even had it with tortilla chips. It's pretty good that way and a perfect spicy snack for get togethers and game nights.

I thought about making it fresh but the canned one tastes really good and is so convenient that I never even tried!

By SteamLouis — On Aug 03, 2011

@ysmina-- You're right, chakalaka is the perfect meal to make when you don't have the time or energy to worry too much over dinner.

This food was actually found in a very poor town in Africa. The story is that an African mother could not find much food to feed her family. Beans, tomatoes and onions were the only foods she could find and she came up with chakalaka.

Probably over time, people have changed the recipe and made it more suitable to their taste buds by adding different spices and so forth, but it's still the same ingredients.

We have this dish in my family pretty often, especially after a holiday where we ate way too much. It reminds us to be grateful for what we have and that we can satisfy our hunger with very simple foods.

By ysmina — On Aug 02, 2011

I tasted this at my friend's house. It was very good, reminded me of both Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, except for the rice being replaced with pap.

The chakalaka was awesome! It was very spicy and I used the pap to tone down the spice. The pap lacks flavor if you try it by itself. It's much better with the chakalaka, I poured chakalaka all over mine!

It looked very simple to make also. It's something I can cook up even if I don't have many ingredients at home. I always have onions, tomatoes, canned beans and tomato paste at home. These are actually some basic ingredients for Middle Eastern cooking as well. I can't imagine a dish without onions and tomato paste.

I don't think I will make the pap though. I think I prefer to have it with bread or rice. If I make it with rice, it will really resemble Indian and Arabic cooking.

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