Cape Town‘s Bo-Kaap neighbourhood is beloved for its picture-postcard streetscapes with their candy coloured terrace houses, cobblestones and quaint mosques. However, the real attractions for us are the aromas that waft from its kitchens and the chance to do some cooking in Cape Town – Cape Malay style.
The locals of this historic quarter have stuck firmly to their culinary traditions, and while anodyne versions of the signature Cape Malay dishes are available in restaurants in Cape Town, we were determined to sample the spicy sensations the best way possible – doing some cooking in Cape Town, in someone’s home.
We meet our guide Sabelo at Bo-Kaap Museum where he briefs us on Cape Town’s ‘Malay’ history as we wander around the excellent little museum.
Because Cape Town’s indigenous tribes were nomadic herders, hunters and gatherers, the Dutch colonisers imported slaves from the Indonesian archipelago, coastal India, Madagascar, and Mozambique from 1658 until 1807.
The Cape was also a convict station for prisoners from Batavia (present-day Indonesia), many of whom stayed on after their sentences ended. The language the convicts and slaves shared was Malayu, a trading language used from China to Madagascar, which is where the name ‘Cape Malay’ was derived to describe Cape Muslims.
After the British abolished slavery in 1834, most of the freed slaves settled in Bo Kaap area, which became a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. It’s now home to around a dozen mosques, including the Awal mosque, the city’s first mosque, and the first madrassa.
Many of the former slaves became fishermen, and fish, especially snoek (a local favourite), became an important part of their diet, used mostly in seafood curries.
The Malays were sought after as slaves, and after they were freed as staff, because they had great cooking skills. The kitchen was the centre of the home for the Cape Malays, and the wok, mortar and pestle the utensils that were most used.
Spices are central to Cape Malay cuisine, and we learn just how important they are when we leave the museum and head across the road to Atlas Trading Spice Shop.
For someone who loves cooking, this shop is a heartening sight as busy workers hurry about filling orders and filling brown paper bags with aromatic spices, scooped from enormous jute bags, and destined for homes and restaurants across Cape Town.
Here we play something of a guess-the-spice game, inhaling the spices that Sabelo offers us, guessing their name, and at the same time learning their Indian name. Our time spent in the spice souqs of the Middle East pays off and we do pretty well.
We are reminded that cumin is jeera, dried coriander is dhanya/koljanna, fennel is bariship and so on.
We learn that falooda or Chinagrass is grated and made into a welcome drink, that borrie (turmeric) is used as an antiseptic, and that pea flour is used as a replacement for wheat flour.
Before we can begin cooking in Cape Town, we take a walking tour around the hilly streets of Bo-Kaap, Sabelo briefing us on the contemporary history of the ‘hood as we admire a kaleidoscope’s worth of colours on the way.
Once a poor neighbourhood, Bo Kaap is on the up. More affluent residents are moving in and gentrification is underway, resulting in higher property prices and higher taxes for everyone.
“The locals fear the flavour of their neighbourhood is changing,” Sabelo tells us, “But they are clinging on.”
We visit Biesmiellah, a shop, butchery and restaurant in one, where we try bollah, a delicious sweet bread, and a potato wadah, a very tasty snack. In the halal butchery next door, we admire the dhania sausages and taste their specialty, silverside, which is slow-cooked for 48 hours.
It’s a quick stroll across the road for our cooking lesson at the home of cooking instructor, Faldela Tolker, or Bo Kaap’s Tyra Banks, as she cheekily prefers to be called.
Faldela tells us how she made a living for many years selling food to office workers for their lunches, until she became pregnant. She started teaching Cape Malay cooking five years ago and now lets visitors into her house a few times a week to learn how to make her home-style food.
Faldela offers us the welcome drink of falooda that Sabelo had earlier told us about, made from cow’s milk, rose syrup and falooda seeds. It’s a drink the Cape Malays have to break their fast during Ramadan, and it’s delicious, a bit like a drink Lara used to make in Dubai where rose water and syrup was always on our shelves at home.
Introductions over, we finally start cooking in Cape Town.
First up is a snack to munch on while we cook, spicy chile bites, which we make from chickpea flour, all purpose flour, turmeric, curry power, egg, salt, and – Faldela’s special ingredient – love!
The consistency of the mix shouldn’t be too runny or too thick, she advises. We spoon the mixture into the deep fryer and a minute late they’re done and they’re delicious.
Next up, Faldela teaches us how to make roti. Sabelo rolls up his sleeves and joins in, kneading the dough like an expert baker. He tells us it was one of his chores as a kid.
The dough should be shiny and elastic, Faldela advises. The more you kneed, the less rising time you need, she says. It looks tough. I’m glad this is Sabelo’s job!
The chicken curry goes on next – Faldela has already started this one to save time – and a kilo of boneless, skinless chicken breast goes into a pungent curry sauce comprised of chile, curry leaves, fennel, coriander, cumin, turmeric, and her no-longer secret ingredient of honey to counteract any bitterness.
We’re interrupted by a young man who comes to Faldela’s open door asking for some food.
“Not now,” she tells him, “Can’t you see I’m working here?” Every day people come to her door, she says, and every night she cooks extra food for people.
“Because as a Muslim, I can’t refuse them,” Faldela explains. “Some days 30 people might knock on my door. It’s all about ubuntu.”
The African concept of ubuntu, Faldela teaches us, is all about interconnectedness, about being open and available, and about sharing.
We make a tomato and onion sambal next. This one’s easy. We combine finely chopped tomato and onion, vinegar, black pepper, salt, sugar, chopped fresh coriander, and Faldela’s not so secret ingredient, a little apricot jam.
Once our roti pastry is ready, Faldela cooks the first couple before I take over duties. The smell is wonderful and I manage not to embarrass myself when I flip the bread over.
That done, we make the samosas. I tell Faldela that I’ve never bothered to make samosas because they look too fussy. Besides, in Dubai, if you want samosas you just call the local Indian place and half an hour later the delivery guy is knocking at the door. She gives me her fiercest Tyra Banks look.
After a slow start on my part, pretty soon my pastry folding and filling improve and are good enough to be signed off by Tyra and plunged into hot oil.
Sabelo, meantime, has been setting the table and soon we’re sitting down together and eating the delicious feast that we’ve made.
The fresh roti are well worth the trouble and the samosas are the best we’ve ever tasted – and we ate samosas every week for a dozen years in Abu Dhabi and Dubai so trust us, we know our samosas.
We sample the delectable chicken curry that I’ve admittedly had little to do with but Faldela gives us a packet of her special spice mix that she’s used to take home, as well as the recipes.
And these are definitely recipes that I’ll be using – even the samosa recipe. And I’ll be sure to add Faldela’s secret ingredient. That thing called love.
Also interested in doing some cooking in Cape Town? Sign up here for a Cape Malay Cooking Lesson through Andulela.