I felt like a tourist in my own city, a kilometre away from where I live. I was on assignment in the Bo-Kaap for a story for Getaway Magazine about Cape Malay food. For two weeks I immersed myself in samoosas, faloodas, rotis and curry in an effort to learn all I could about the rich culinary heritage that is unique to Cape Town.
I had elicited to help of my Cape Malay friend and colleague, Ilhaam Ismail, to come on a Cape Malay food safari with me. Despite having grown up watching her grandmother and mother cook Cape Malay dishes, she ended up learning a lot on the cooking lessons in the Bo-Kaap, as well as reconnecting with old acquaintances and family friends (turns out everyone knows everyone in the tightly-knit Cape Malay community).
By the end of the two weeks, I’d learned to say ‘Salaam alaikum’, how to pronounce the Cape Malay koesisters (totally different to the plaited koeksisters and much yummier), to recognise Cape Malay spices by smell (there was rather a lot of sneezing involved in that one), that salt is equivalent to love in food. After much practising in the various Cape Malay cooking lessons (with expert tuition from the cooking aunties of the Bo-Kaap), my rotis became perfectly round and flaky, my samoosas crisp, and my curries fragrantly spiced.
We started off the Cape Malay assignment with the andulela Experience Cape Malay Cooking Safari, a Fairtrade-certified tour. Atlas Trading, a famous spice shop on Wale Street on Bo Kaap, was our first spot. Here guide Sabelo Maku took us on a scratch ‘n sniff tour of Cape Malay spices, followed by a short walk around the fascinating Bo-Kaap Musuem. Then our small group was welcomed into Faldela Tolker’s home for our cooking class. We drank falooda (a milky drink made with rosewater and falooda seeds) while learning to make rotis, samoosas, and chicken curry accompanied by Faldela’s humour: ‘There are two ways to fold a samoosa: my way or the highway.’ Unable to fit in pudding, we were sent home with take-away koesisters and a big hug. I tried to save my koesisters to share with my colleagues back in the office, but I couldn’t resist taking a bite of the warm coconut-covered doughnut and then I ended up eating them all in the car on the way back to work. It was the first time I had tried the Cape Malay sweet, and I can thoroughly recommend it – spiced balls of dough deep-fried and then boiled in syrup and dusted with coconut. Yum.
Zainie Misbach started South Africa’s first Cape Malay restaurant, Biesmiellah, as well as the Noon Gun Restaurant, currently run by her sister. On her Bo-Kaap Cooking Tour, Zainie takes you to the spice shop (‘to take the fear of buying spices out of you’) and for a short walk around the Bo-Kaap, chatting about Cape Malay history and culture. After learning how to make chicken curry, butter lentil curry, rotis, samoosas and dhaltjies (deep-fried ‘chilli’ bites that actually don’t have chilli in them) in her kitchen, we devoured the feast in her peaceful turquoise courtyard, in the heart of the Bo-Kaap. Zainie was full of tips – which, if you weren’t quick with your notebook, you would miss, such as adding lemon juice to a simmering curry to break up the husks of the spices, and chilling balls of roti dough in the freezer for an hour or so to give them better texture. Zainie is full of stories of famous and eccentric arty friends, Cape Malay food culture (I loved her story about how giving your husband syrupy koesisters on a Sunday morning gets him out of bed to do housework). Having appeared on numerous TV shows, and been featured in loads of magazines, she is something of a Cape Malay cooking queen, and spending an afternoon with her provided me with great insight for my story.
At this point in my assignment (a week and a half of cooking courses and restaurants), I was almost samoosa-ed out. Warm and chatty, Gamida Jacobs welcomes groups into her Bo-Kaap home (for her Lekka Kombuis cooking lessons), where she takes people through cooking Cape Malay favourites – rotis, curries, cheese and onion samoosas (my favourite samoosa filling) and dhaltjies. Ilhaam and I spent a happy two hours chatting about everything from boyfriends and homeloans to what it means to be a modern Muslim woman. It was here that I finally perfected the art of folding samoosas (it’s harder than it looks, especially for a left-hander) and Ilhaam discovered that someone else could make dhaltjies as good as her grandmother’s (just don’t tell her grandmother that).
We ended off two weeks of a lot of curry in Constantia, of all places. Martha Williams, who was trained by well-known chef and Cape Malay cookbook author Cass Abrahams, offers cooking demonstrations at the Cellars Hohenort hotel: the Cape Malay Experience. It’s a very different vibe from cooking in the Bo-Kaap but a delicious one nonetheless. Martha showed us how to make a creamy seafood curry, miniature dhaltjies, and a butternut and lentil bredie. The seafood curry was my favourite – Martha added a touch of sherry (although this isn’t quite authentic Cape Malay cooking) which really brought out the flavours of the seafood. The curry was easy to make – I reckon it’s going to be my winter comfort cooking staple. The Cape Malay Experience was less hands-on than the other cooking classes – it’s more a demonstration than a class, really. Nevertheless, the food was delicious – we feasted on the smorgasbord of dishes in the intimate Cape Malay Restaurant, and finished off with Martha’s indulgent malva pudding served with Amarula ice cream.
Even if you’re a Cape Town local like me, by going on a Cape Malay cooking safari you’re going to discover a whole new side to our city, make some new friends, and learn to cook amazing Cape Malay food to impress your friends with at your next dinner party.
Cape Malay cooking lessons in Cape Town
andulela Experience Cape Malay Cooking Safari
The half-day tour with a guide and host Faldela Tolker costs R660 a person. Tel 021-790-2592, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.andulela.com.
The Bo-Kaap Cooking Tour
A three-hour tour and class with Zainie Misbach costs R600 a person, cell 074-130-8124, email email@example.com, www.bokaapcookingtour.co.za.
Two-hour long cooking classes with Gamida Jacobs cost R180 a person. Gamida also offers cooking classes in your home where she provides all the ingredients. Cell 079-957-0226, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Cape Malay experience at the Cellars Hohenort
An evening demonstration with Martha Williams and three-course meal costs R675 a person. Tel 021-794-2137, email email@example.com, www.cellars-hohenort.com.
10 Cape Malay dishes to try
Bobotie – a South African favourite: spiced mince topped with egg custard
Breyani - a curried meat, lentil and rice dish often served with dhai (yoghurt and cumin)
Denningvleis – Chunks of lamb marinated in tamarind, bay leaves and all spice, served with rice
Samoosas – Deep-fried pastries filled with mince or vegetarian fillings
Dhaltjies – Deep-fried savoury snacks made from pea flour with chopped spinach and onion
Boeber – A milky dessert with vermicelli, flavoured with cardamom
Koesisters – Fried spiced doughnuts soaked in syrup and covered in coconut
Bredie – Slow-simmered meat and vegetable stew
Mafrew – Cubed beef in a spicy sauce served with rice
Falooda – A sweet milk drink made with rosewater and sabza seeds
Cape Malay recipes