It’s July in Cape Town, which means that it’s the dead of winter: Thick sheets of fog unfurl down Table Mountain, bringing with them steady torrents of rain. And yet somehow the skies seem less gray in Bo-Kaap, where clusters of rowhouses snaking up the slopes of Signal Hill explode in a rainbow of gold, lavender and periwinkle.
Also known as the Cape Malay Quarter, the Bo-Kaap neighborhood is home to Cape Town’s Muslim community. And the food being cooked in the kitchens of these houses is no less colorful than the facades.
A confluence of far-flung cultures has marked this distant corner of the African continent for centuries, resulting in a cuisine unique to South Africa. Bobotie, bredie, samosa, gestoofde, biryani — the names alone hint at the dishes’ global heritage; this food was fusion far before fusion was ever a “thing.”
The Cape Malays are descendants of political prisoners and slaves brought to the former Dutch colony from Southeast Asia in the late 1600s. As soon as I try my first koesister — a cloyingly sweet, syrupy doughnut dusted with coconut, with flavors redolent of both the Far East and the far north — I know that I’m due for a history lesson.
“You can tell the history of a country from a plate of food,” says Cass Abrahams, one of Africa’s most renowned Cape Malay chefs. “We have to start at the beginning of the South African journey.” She herself is of French, English, Xhosa and Indian descent and became interested in the food when she married an Indonesian man. “I was like a fly on the wall — you look at what they are eating and you start asking questions. Why are they cooking the way they’re cooking? Where does it come from?”
What she found was a cuisine steeped in legend. The first Europeans to land on the Cape were the Portuguese; though they didn’t last, their fishing techniques did. When the Dutch first arrived, they relied heavily on the local San people’s expertise with indigenous plants. But after they wiped that community out, they imported slaves from colonies in Malaysia and Indonesia.
“These slaves added the flavors of their homeland with free abandon to the food they found in their Dutch masters’ kitchens,” Abrahams says. “You’ll find that the spicy food we have here is not spicy in the sense that Mexican food is, that it will blow the roof of your mouth off. It’s a very gentle type of spice, to accommodate the palates of the Dutch.”
Eventually, the English, Indians, French and Germans brought their own influences with their curries, sauces and sausages. And now, “recipes that are 200 years old are still cooked in exactly the same way in Cape Malay homes,” Abrahams says.
To see for myself, I visit a Bo-Kaap house, one that’s painted tangerine. Inside, Latiefa Doutie gives tourists lessons in the art of Cape Malay cooking. When I visit, she has a tureen of prawn soup simmering on the stove and a pot of lamb akhni, similar to biryani, freshly prepared in the scullery. “We stole from the Indian people their biryanis but made it our own,” she tells me. “It’s more aromatic, not so spicy or hot.”
In this community, certain dishes are closely tied to specific occasions: “If there’s a wedding, there will always be biryani. If there’s a baby getting a name, we make melk porring, a baked milk pudding. On the 15th night of Ramadan we have boeber, a sweetened milk drink.”
And what of my favorites, the koesisters? “Ah, that’s the famous Sunday morning breakfast,” she says, smiling. “We weren’t allowed to practice our religion, so we used to go after the Western way of life, so Sundays would be the main meal. In the morning they would have koesisters.”
Not far from Bo-Kaap is Cape Quarter, a complex of chic boutiques, galleries and coffee shops, popular among Cape Town’s stylish set. Here, in a cobbled piazza, I find the Cape Malay Food Market, a cheerful, homey restaurant run by Zaida Tofie, a former transportation planner turned restaurateur. Most Cape Malay eateries tend to be no-frills takeaway joints dotting the less shiny parts of town, dishing up fast-food steak salomies (curried beef in a flaky roti), which makes Tofie’s cafe an anomaly.
“This once used to be a Malay quarter, and yet there wasn’t any halal or Cape Malay food here,” she says, referring to the neighborhood’s gentrification. And so, when she decided to open her restaurant last year, she was drawn to the area. “Cape Malay food has become like white plastic furniture, and I felt it needs to be more classy.”
Here I sample bobotie — a crisp egg custard, burned much like crème brûlée, concealing braised beef subtly flavored with turmeric and bay leaves — and a tomato bredie, a classic comfort dish, a nourishing lamb and tomato stew that you sop up with a flaky, buttery roti. The denning vleis is like nothing I’ve ever eaten before, soft stewed sweet lamb infused with tamarind. The samosas and dhaltjies are reminiscent of India. “If you eat Cape Malay food, you get to a point where when you eat other food, it tastes bland,” Tofie says.
Twenty minutes and a world away from Bo-Kaap and Cape Quarter lies Constantia, a leafy suburb and the oldest wine region in the Southern Hemisphere. Here, at the gracious Relais & Châteaux spread Cellars-Hohenort, executive chef Martha Williams elevates the tomato bredie to a form of fine dining. Though she’s not Cape Malay — she’s “colored,” a socially acceptable term here used to describe people of mixed race — she studied under Abrahams and now leads the hotel’s Cape Malay Cooking Experience.
In a kitchen with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking verdant grounds, she teaches guests about the nuances of Cape Malay food.
Isn’t this type of old-fashioned home cooking out of place on tables draped with fine white linens? Not at all, says Williams. “It’s South African. It’s Cape Town. It’s a big part of the local cuisine.”