Cape Malay cooking has left its unique mark on South Africa’s collective heritage. It is known and loved across the country. Cariema Isaacs, author of Cooking for my Father in My Cape Malay Kitchen, gives deeper insight into this cuisine and its history.
Asked about her favourite childhood memory involving food, Cariema Isaacs could not help but smile because it invoked heart-warming recollections.
“It takes me back to a Sunday morning in Bo-Kaap and the smell of warm and aromatic aniseed-infused koesisters glistening with sweet sugar syrup and dusted with beautifully white, desiccated coconut,” said Isaacs, author of Cooking for my Father in My Cape Malay Kitchen.
“It’s a memory that rings true for every Cape Malay and to this day, the tradition of having warm koesisters served for breakfast or as a snack on Sunday morning is still kept alive in our community.”
Isaacs wrote her cookbook in honour of her father following his death in 2013. Working in Dubai, she said she found it exceptionally difficult to mourn his passing. This prompted her to write a book to capture the memories – mostly related to food, their heritage and the Cape Malay culture – that made them both so happy.
“It’s with ease that blank pages were filled with moments that I remember cooking with him, meals we ate together and his simple philosophy about food… Many of these moments were underpinned by my childhood memories of growing up in Bo-Kaap, the Cape Malay quarter where I was born.”
The book, she said, took you on a culinary journey through Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap, the food and festivals that represented the community, the spirit of caring and sharing and the celebration of “togetherness”.
Isaacs always had a love for cooking, baking and, naturally, eating. But it was moving to Dubai that ignited her curiosity about world cuisine. “The more I explore it, the more I am intrigued.”
She said what she had deemed everyday, home cooking became a form of art. “I saw what I was creating being captured through someone else’s lens, styled by someone else’s interpretation of my dish. It’s a thing of beauty.”
Cape Malay cuisine was an important part of South Africa’s heritage, she explained, because it dated back to the first settlers who arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. The Dutch East India Company delegation set up a refreshment post for traders on their way between the Netherlands and the East.
Her Cape Malay forefathers arrived here as slaves from various places in Southeast Asia. “The roots of Cape Malay culture and cuisine are largely influenced by its Indonesian, Javanese and Malay forefathers. The famous Afrikaans poet, C Louis Leipoldt (1880-1947), claimed in an article that the earliest authorities behind original South African dishes came from the ‘Cape Malay’ population of the Western Cape.”
Many of their forefathers worked as cooks or kitchen hands, she explained, and adapted recipes from their homelands for the palates of the households in which they worked. But there were also influences from the masters of the homes, who were predominantly Dutch or British.
“In order to fully appreciate the Cape Malay cuisine, you need to understand its history and in understanding its history you very quickly come to learn that every dish tells a story,” Isaacs said.
“Every story could depict either a particular spice that links us to another part of the globe or places from which our forefathers hailed.”
The type of food cooked in the past also depended on the day of the week, she said. On Sundays, there was chicken or expensive cuts of meat; Mondays were fish days or the left-overs from Sunday. “Food passed on from our past, tells the story of celebration, of religion, of struggle but it’s always been a way to bring the community together.”
The tapestry of flavours and spices woven together from countries such as the Netherlands, India, Indonesia, France and Britain made Cape Malay cuisine uniquely South African, she said. The cuisine was also influenced by the Islamic faith, so all food was halaal.
Instead of hot and pungent, Cape Malay spice combinations were more fragrant and aromatic. The dishes that had their roots in Malaysia, Java and Indonesia consisted of aromatics such as cloves, bay leaves, all spice pimentos, cardamom, fresh ginger and garlic, and tamarind paste. The curries, known for their lush sauces, had ground spices such as turmeric, cumin and a blended leaf or roasted masala.
“It is also important to mention that Cape Malay cooking is complete only when it can be enjoyed with friends and family (never alone) and, more importantly, shared with neighbours and the community (especially as a form of charity).”
Isaacs said her favourite recipe from her book was Braised Sausage. Make it yourself:
Braised Sausage (Gesmore Soeseis)
Cape Town boasts some of the finest halaal butcheries around which specialise in a wide variety of sausages and cold meats such as viennas, polonies and penny polonies. An essential requirement for this very popular dish is to ensure that a good quality sausage is used, in other words, one that consists of a higher pure meat ratio compared to that of the other sausage ingredients.
Good-quality sausage will expand and plump up when cooked and must contain a fair amount of moisture inside the casing. You need a juicy sausage for this recipe. Serves 4–6.
Notes: Steer away from plaaswors or boerewors for this recipe, because the taste of it is way too pungent and the meat ratio is disproportionate. If the sausage is spicy, then omit the chilli and pepper. Salt is optional or to taste, as some sausages have added salt and seasoning.
- 1 Tbsp (15 ml) sunflower oil
- 2 large onions, finely chopped
- 1 green chilli, halved lengthways
- 1 ripe tomato, roughly chopped
- 1 C (250 ml) water
- 3–4 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
- 1 kg sausage
- ¼ tsp (1.25 ml) freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tsp (5 ml) sugar
- Salt to taste
- Heat the oil over medium heat and add the onions and chilli. Cook for 3–5 minutes, stirring frequently, and then add the tomato. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent.
- Just as the onions and tomato are about to catch on the bottom of the pot, gradually add ½ C (125 ml) of the water, small amounts at a time, and cook for a further 5 minutes.
- Add the potatoes and gently scrape any bits from the bottom of the pot.
- Add the remaining ½ C (125 ml) water and cook, covered, for about 15 minutes over a medium heat, until the potatoes are slightly browned and the water has transformed into a fairly thick sauce.
- Place the sausage on top of the potatoes – DO NOT stir!
- The sausage will act as a blanket and will provide just enough moisture for the potatoes to continue cooking and softening.
- Increase the heat to high and allow the sausage and potatoes to cook for about 5 minutes. Then turn the heat down to medium for about 20 minutes.
- Sprinkle over the pepper and sugar and fold in carefully.
- You can add a little water if you prefer a slightly thinner sauce. Do a taste test and add salt if needed.
- Serve hot with fresh bread or fluffy white rice.
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