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Delving in to Cape Malay Cuisine


Understanding Cape Malay Cuisine

Cape Malay food is a cuisine unique to Cape Town in South Africa.  It is an intricate cuisine that weaves its rich history into the flavours and spices of the dishes.

Cape Malay cuisine has a deep history, beginning in the 1600s when the Dutch arrived in the Cape, bringing slaves from Indonesia, Malaysia, and East Africa. Many women at the time were slaves to Dutch households and had to cook for their families.

The slaves had brought recipes and spices from their home countries. However, these dishes had to be adapted either because certain spices were not available, or the dishes were too spicy for the European palette. Luckily, Cape Malay cuisine has a no shortage of complex spice and ingredient combinations and discovered that paprika acted as the perfect substitute for chilli powder.  It is these substitutions and adaptations that have resulted in the uniqueness and authenticity of Cape Malay cuisine.

These dishes and style of cooking has survived for generations and are preserved in the multi-coloured houses of the Bo-Kaap.

The unique flavours in Cape Malay dishes is mainly due to the spices and their blends that have been passed down over the generations. Present in many of the dishes is masala, a combination of spices. In almost every dish there will be turmeric, cumin and coriander. Masala, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon are then added. It is the intricately balanced addition of these spices that gives the cuisine its deep, complex flavour.

Flavoursome stews, such as breyani, bredie and bobotie, along with spicy curries and sosaties (lamb or mutton kebabs) are classic Cape Malay dishes.

The word ‘bredie’ is Malaysian in origin and was a cooking form introduced by the slaves. Legend has it that the bredie was born from vegetable donations and offcuts given to the slaves by slave owners who then figured out how to turn the ingredients into a flavourful meal. It involves stewing meat, usually lamb, and a feature vegetable over a long period of time. Bredies typically call for cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and in some instances, chili.

Biryani, a mixed rice dish, is also a key dish in Cape Malay cuisine, served often at large functions because it spreads easier and can be made in large quantities.

Dried fruit, such as raisins and apricots, are also commonly used ingredients. Their sweetness perfectly complements the spices to make for tangy, contrasting flavours.

Bread, in the form of ‘rotis’ (pronounced ‘rooties’) is particularly important in Cape Malay cuisine. Rice is a staple side dish for stews, but the roti is the one you will find served with curries. It is perfect to lap up the sauce and dig in with your hands. There are different types of rotis and there is an art to the Cape Malay roti. Indian rotis are traditionally made with flour and water, while the Cape Malay roti is made with butter, flour and water. The dough is rolled into layers, each layer is coated in butter and then left to rest. The rotis are then fried until fluffy, crispy and flaky.

You will also often find sambals served with dishes as ways to add even more flavour.  Sambals consist of finely chopped fruit or vegetables that have been steeped in salt, vinegar, chilies and sugar.

Dessert also plays an important role in Cape Malay cuisine.  There are several newer additions to Cape Malay desserts, but the two original desserts are the koeksister and boeber.

Koeksisters are deep-fried dumpling-like desserts, made with ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and aniseed, coated in syrup and then coated in coconut.

Boeber is a traditional sweet milk made with sago, sugar and vermicelli and flavoured with cardamom, cinnamon and rose water. It is traditionally served during Ramadan but is available at other times of the year.

Cape Malay cuisine is so influential in the South African culinary landscape, that the traditional dish of Bobotie has in fact been called “a hot contender for South Africa’s cuisine” and is featured on several international cooking sites, such as BBC Good Food.

Ultimately, what Cape Malay cuisine boils down to is a celebration of heritage and a way to bring people together in a celebration of food.

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