See what the Food24 team has to say about whether some iconic deep-fried South African foods can be successfully recreated in the air fryer.
Our sister brand News24 shared an interesting campaign from the creative team over at Sunfoil. The campaign is based on the premise that “tradition just tastes better” and challenges the use of air fryers to recreate old-school deep-fried South African recipes.
And while the trendy kitchen gadget has gained a significant amount of popularity, is it really worth it to push the air-frying limits so far?
By recreating traditional South African recipes like koesisters, koeksisters, amagwinya/vetkoek or half-moons in the air fryer, you might be saving yourself cooking oil and some calories, but at what real cost?
So, being a bunch of curious and hungry foodies, the team at Food24 set out with an important challenge in mind: deep-fry versus air-fry, and how this choice affects the outcome of some of South Africa’s most iconic traditionally deep-fried foods.
Is air-fried better than deep-fried?
In terms of taste and texture, the air-fried counterparts all seemed to lack on each recipes’ unique flavour front. Interestingly, though, the air fryer really brought the ‘basic bread’ vibes, which is great – unless you’re on the search for a good old koesister or amagwinya.
“I was surprised that all the air-fried samples tasted like bread or had a bread-like consistency and overall lacked the flavour each South African dish is known for,” said Ishani Chetty, Food24’s social media manager.
Taste and texture aside, the biggest noticeable difference was when it came to cooking times and the sheer convenience that deep-frying offers. The air-fried versions took a lot longer to cook and also weren’t exactly oil-free; they still had to be coated with oil during the cooking process and turned to allow for even cooking.
“Even though I’m a BIG air-fryer fan – I have made cheat koeksister bites in the air fryer before – it seemed like more of a faff to recreate traditional recipes in the air fryer when deep-frying yielded fluffy, light and evenly golden goods in a mere fraction of the time it took to air fry,” said Bianca Jones, Food24’s content producer.
Let’s take a closer look at how deep-fryer and air-frying compare when it comes to each South African sweet treat.
These neat little satisfying balls of dough cook in a matter of moments when deep-fried. They also puff up considerably and, despite being deep-fried in hot oil, they’re light and fluffy with just the right amount of chew. The original deep-fried offering had a big flavour depth to it – nutty and moreish with a delicate, crisp and golden outer coating.
MUST-TRY RECIPE: Zola Nene’s amagwinya
The air-fried counterpart took longer to cook and was considerably more bready – more like a crusty roll than amagwinya. The dough formed a harder, crustier, lightly golden outer coating and each dough ball seemed to expand less than the deep-fried version. The taste was quite reminiscent of vetkoek, but the flavour was somewhat subdued with the air-fried version.
“They have a lovely even colour, but these aren’t vetkoek. They’re somewhere between vetkoek and a bread roll,” said Lauren Goldman, Food24’s editor. “In fact, everything air-fried tastes a lot like bread … And as much as I love bread, that’s not what I’m looking for when it comes to vetkoek.”
Okuhle Nomana, Food24’s social media intern, felt that even though deep-fried might not be the healthiest method, it sure produces the best results when it comes to amagwinya. “What stood out with the air-fried amagwinya is that they lacked the soft and crispy element that the deep-fried ones had. Instead, they were dry on the inside and crunchy on the outside. Deep-fried might not be as healthy because of the amount of oil used, but it sure is tasty!”
Conclusion: That characteristic delicately golden crisp outer coating and overall nuttiness simply could not be rivalled – two aspects the air-fried version failed to recreate successfully. The air-fried version did create neat little crispy bread rolls, but whether you could call them amagwinya/vetkoek is debatable.
Drenched in a sweet syrup and coated in desiccated coconut, these traditionally deep-fried goods are a true thing of wonder!
MUST-TRY RECIPE: Step-by-step koesister guide
The traditionally deep-fried versions are moreish and sinfully delicious. They offered just the right amount of lightly spiced doughy chew with each bite. The outer coating was golden and delicately crisp and the syrupy sweet and coconut hues also came through nicely.
The balance was somewhat thrown off with the air-fried version. Although they cooked evenly in the air fryer, they were almost ‘drier’ than the deep-fried ones. They also had a very crisp and somewhat thicker outer coating. As a result, they seemed to absorb far more of the sugar syrup than the deep-fried version, producing a very sweet offering.
“My grandmother would hate the texture of these air-fried koesisters! Although they’re quite evenly cooked – something which is often hard to get right – the texture is way off. They’re too crispy and they absorbed a lot of syrup,” said Lauren.
Conclusion: The texture and flavour balance changes greatly when trying to recreate koesisters in the air fryer. If you would, however, like to greatly upset your granny, a Cape Malay tannie or any traditionalists you might have in your family, serve them up a batch of air-fried koesisters and wait for the chaos to ensue!
While each family has their own recipe and way of serving these lightly spiced sweet biscuit-like treats, they’re almost always deep-fried and enjoyed at special events.
The traditional deep-fried version had a soft, delicate texture. The spices used to flavour the dough were somehow more prominent when deep-fried. The cardamom came through nicely, which complemented the rose-flavoured syrup well. Overall, they were also beautifully golden with a lovely sweetness to them.
With the air-fried version, the end result had a somewhat tougher texture. This is probably because the dough itself was a lot tougher, denser and drier after being air-fried. The air-fried gulab jamun seemed to lack a lot of that desired sweetness you’d typically expect with the traditional version, as the density didn’t allow for much of the sugar syrup to absorb into the final product.
MUST-TRY RECIPE: Gulab jamun
“I mean, sure you can recreate just about anything in the air fryer, no one is going to stop you, but with certain recipes the texture and the flavour balance might be thrown off,” says Bianca, “which I guess is okay if you’ve never tried authentic gulab jamun before, but totally triggering for someone who has perfected the art of making these little delicacies the traditional deep-fried way for years.”
Conclusion: The deep-fried version really brought delicately spiced flavours out, while they were somewhat subdued with the air-fried version. Overall there were big textural differences between the two.
Poli is typically a light, flaky pastry filled with a delicious toasted coconut filling and fried to golden perfection, which makes a great teatime treat.
While the traditional deep-fried version was indeed light, crisp and pastry-like with subtle coconut notes coming through, the air-fried version was more biscuit-like. It was crunchy, and the dough seemed quite dense, almost tough to chew through.
MUST-TRY RECIPE: Poli
Conclusion: The texture changes drastically when you try to recreate a traditional poli recipe in the air fryer, and while the air fryer does offer a less oily version, this does seem to compromise on the product’s delicate texture.
Consensus from the Food24 team
While the air fryer is cool and is super versatile, after tasting all the deep-fried and air-fried samples, we have to admit we’re going to agree with Sunfoil on this one: “tradition just tastes better”, at least where iconic deep-fried South African recipes are concerned!