The South African Kota Sandwich Is a Story of Apartheid

The story behind the classic South African dish, the kota sandwich

There are a range of closely related street foods in South Africa that offer a distinctly local twist on the traditional idea of the globally recognized, on-the-go snack that we’ve known since at least the 18th century: the sandwich. The South African kota sandwich is one of the most bombastic iterations of this snack, and tells the story of apartheid in its many layers.

Sandwiches are staples in cultures around the world, but what makes the South African kota unique is, as food anthropologist Anna Trapido has argued, their use of a, “hollowed-out loaf which serves as an edible container for everything and anything from bean curries and masala steak to polony (baloney), slaptjips (fries), Russian sausages and fried eggs.” In short: You can stuff just about anything in this sandwich.

Like much of South African street food culture, the history and makeup of these sandwiches is shaped by the country’s history of racial segregation, apartheid spatial planning, and the often enforced scattering of various language and ethnic groups across the country. The kota, which earns its name thanks to a township slang pronunciation of the “quarter” of a loaf of white bread that serves as its container, is distinctive to the province of Gauteng, which includes the major cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. Its ingredients, while long since built upon to include ever larger and more exotic towers of filling, are traditionally accepted to be polony (baloney), slaptjips (fries), atchar (mango pickle), and cheese. 

The kota fed laborers, and social progress

The origins of the kota have deep roots in the apartheid era migrant labor system and the backbone industry of mining, which led to millions of black laborers working in pitiful and near-slave conditions to unearth the deep reserves of gold in Gauteng that propped up the economy of the white minority regime. As Chef Mokgadi Itsweng points out, “A lot of people who worked on the mines had very little time to eat and weren’t allowed to eat in many restaurants and cafes because of apartheid segregation laws. You couldn’t just go out at lunchtime and buy food and often you only had time to eat while you were miles underground in a shaft. So that’s how the kota came about – women started making these sandwiches, with these easily available, cheap, carb-heavy fillings to sustain the men who were working underground. You were carrying your lunch in the bread.” 

What you choose to call your favorite South African street food and what goes into it, tells everyone a lot about who you are and where you come from.

The kota was not the first version of what Trapido has called, “suitcase-style sandwiches,” to take South Africa by storm. That honor goes to the famous Bunny Chow, a hollowed-out quarter loaf of white bread filled with tasty bean or meat curry and popularised by the descendants of Indian indentured sugarcane laborers in the KwaZulu Natal port city of Durban in the early years of the 20th century. It got its name from the members of the Bhania or trader caste who first cooked up and sold this now much-treasured national source of culinary pride and joy. The use of a loaf of bread was a stroke of genius because bread absorbs and holds the gravy of a curry far better than troublesome rice or leaky roti. 

It was probably by way of Zulu men who came to work on the mines that the basic idea of the bunny was transported to Gauteng and reimagined as the kota.  

The bread of a kota sandwich is essentially its container, sopping up its different sauces, like ooey-gooey vegan cheese. | Leila Saffarian

In Cape Town, the so-called Mother City of South Africa, the bunny and kota find their nearest relative in the Gatsby – named according to legend for its resemblance to the shape of the flat cap that Robert Redford wore in the 1974 film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s much-beloved American classic tale. However, as Trapido observes, to see any resemblance between Redford’s flat cap and the elongated baguette-style bread in which a Gatsby is traditionally served, “only works if you’re seriously squint.” 

In the Gauteng suburb of Eldorado Park—classified under apartheid legislation as an area for so-called “coloured” or “mixed-race” people—the Gatsby is called an AK, apparently because in order to carry it you have to use two hands in an imitation of the way in which fighters hold a Kalashnikov machine gun. Like the kota, the Gatsby and the AK both feature fillings made up of easy-to-find, cheap carbo-loaded ingredients such as masala steak, cheese, fried eggs, slaptjips topped with heavy splashes of devilishly hot sauces. 

Ultimately, what you choose to call your favorite South African street food and what goes into it, tells everyone a lot about who you are and where you come from. Just don’t dare call it a boring old “sandwich,” and remember that they’re all made for sharing. While these carb-heavy, heart-attack-inducing, much-loved delicacies may as Trapido says, offer a glimpse into, “a culinary culture marinated in the bitterness of racism and the sweetness of sharing,” they also offer, “the ultimate lemonade into lemonade story.” 

The kota and its relatives are a testament to the South African inventive spirit borne out of necessity. They also serve as tasty edible demonstrations of the spirit of ubuntu – loosely defined as the concept of shared humanity and togetherness – that’s gotten us through so many difficult and dark moments in our history and come what may, you can be sure we’ll always have a kota to share when the clouds have parted. 

How to make a vegan South African kota sandwich

The right plant-based meat for a vegan kota is all about finding a hearty texture that can stand up to the explosion of flavors the kota has to offer. This version created by South African chef Mokgadi Itsweng uses Fry’s Original Burger.