Spicing up our lives
The history and culture of Cape Malay food
Cape Malay tastes and recipes have had a lasting and delicious impact on how SA eats
One of the passions of legendary cook, food consultant and caterer Cass Abrahams is the history of the Cape Malay community.
"I truly believe the history of our people is told through the tastes and aromas of our cuisine," she says. "It is reflected in our food. Wars, joys, laughter — even geography, weather conditions, and therefore available ingredients — are all tied up in a plate of food."
Abrahams is the author of two saluted books (The Culture and Cuisine of the Cape Malays and Cass Abrahams Cooks Cape Malay: Food from Africa) as well as the recipient of lifelong membership of the SA Chefs Association.
She was born and raised in Gauteng, and marrying into a Cape Malay Muslim community was furthest from her mind when she went to study at the University of the Western Cape. "I found myself not only married to a Muslim man but also part of a community that was completely strange to me," she says.
She explains the background: "The Cape was colonised by the Dutch East India Company in the mid-17th century. Requiring labour, they imported people from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) as slaves."
Despite the diverse origins of the community, this group later became known as the Cape Malays. They now live mainly in the Bo-Kaap in Cape Town.
Before the Malay people started to influence Cape cooking, it was a fusion of English, Flemish and Dutch cooking. But it didn’t take long for the Oriental influences on Cape Dutch food preparation to become apparent, as is clear from manuscripts and notes of the time.
Cape Town’s slaves made up about a third of the general population at that point. There were relatively few European women in the Cape, and the slave women were mostly the ones cooking in the kitchens — and introducing Eastern spices.
"They superimposed their way of cooking on what they were preparing, thus creating more interesting, spicy dishes," says Abrahams.
The cooking of the Cape Malay people has had an enormous influence on what is known broadly as SA cuisine.
Cape Malay food tempts with spicy and full-bodied flavours. Dried fruit such as raisins and apricots are often used, thus creating sweet and sour flavours that juxtapose with spices. These include cardamom, cloves, mustard seed, ginger, fenugreek, cumin and many others.
Every dish tells a story: though often thought of as Afrikaans dishes, denningvleis, frikkadels, bredie and sosatie are all Cape Malay.
There are many versions of what the roots of bobotie are, for instance. The name may come from the Malay word bobotok, which was an Indonesian dish of vegetables or meat with an egg custard topping. It could also have been a European dish that was transformed by the Malay people when they livened it up by adding spices, courtesy of the slaves — though this is not agreed on by food historians.
Today, bobotie is a firm favourite in both the Afrikaans and the Malay kitchen.
Then there is the Afrikaans confectionery known as a koeksister, which, as history goes, was created by the forebears of the Afrikaners. It is made by dipping deep-fried dough immediately in ice-cold syrup or honey. The Cape Malay version of it (often written and pronounced koesieste) is less sweet and infused with spices, then rolled in dry coconut.
Food anthropologist and author Anna Trapido says: "If you want to see old ladies boxing each other, present the subject of the origins of a dish. In essence, [in this case] it’s simply an example of overlapping fusion foods, carrying elements of European, African and Asian ancestry. There are very few other nations that do this, but we as South Africans look into each other’s pots and adapt them to our own tastes."
The terms Muslim and Malay are often used interchangeably. Through its ethnicity and food, the community has preserved its cultural identity and Islamic creed.
Late author and cookbook writer Lannice Snyman wrote in her book South Africa’s Rainbow Cuisine: "The Cape Malays were in great demand as cooks in early Dutch homes, and their definitive use of spices with the existing food repertoire resulted in what is now called Cape Malay cuisine. Thus [we have] pickled fish, curries and bredies."
Zainie Misbach, who leads food, cultural and historical tours in the Bo-Kaap, says: "Because the Dutch didn’t like chilli, the Cape Malay women had to find a way to not use it." This evolved into a cuisine that is layered with flavour and at the same time palatable to the Europeans.
The Muslim people continue to celebrate their roots while embracing their South Africanness.
Abrahams says: "There are unique expressions that don’t exist outside the Cape Malay community and describe an attitude or saying that is the essence of our people. The level of sharing, for instance, is a concept known as kanalla. It means ‘please’ as well as ‘for God’," she says. "Someone might offer to paint your house, expecting no payment for the work. That’s kanalla work."
Or there is the woman who conjures many-layered feasts for the family, and always makes extra for unexpected guests. "When a feast is being planned it is called a niyyat— and wrapped leftovers are given to guests after the feast."
And if you had to do a survey of SA cooks and chefs, they’d use another Cape Malay expression: terima kasih (thank you) to the Cape Malay kitchen.
You can try it yourself:
Bo-Kaap Kombuis: Yusuf and Nazli Larney, believe the food they prepare is a reflection of the area. It’s open for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Sunday. Phone number: 021-422-5446.
Dial-A-Koesister: Find yourself in reasonable proximity to Wynberg, Cape Town? If you call in an order for a Sunday spoil of warm, authentic and delicious koeksisters it will be delivered to your door. Abdurageem Randal and his family are the brains behind this sweet idea. Just remember to get your Sunday orders in by the night before. You pay for the treats plus kilometres, depending on your location. Phone number: 073-367-1895.