The culinary colours of Bo-Kaap

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iol travel dec 23 nt bokaap

Cape Town - Thick sheets of fog unfurl down Table Mountain, bringing with them steady torrents of rain. And yet somehow the skies seem less grey 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 neighbourhood is home to Cape Town’s Muslim community. And the food being cooked in the kitchens of these houses is no less colourful than the façades.

A confluence of far-flung cultures has marked this distant corner of the continent for centuries, resulting in a cuisine unique to South Africa. Bobotie, bredie, samosa, gestoofde, breyani – 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 koeksister – 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, a renowned Cape Malay chef. “We have to start at the beginning of the South African journey.” She herself is of French, English, Xhosa and Indian descent. “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 flavours 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.

iol travel dec 23 nt cape malay cooking class

Get to grips with Bo-Kaap cuisine with a Cape Malay cooking class.


To see for myself, I visit a Bo-Kaap house. 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 breyani. “We stole from the Indian people their breyani, but made it our own,” she tells me. “It’s more aromatic, not so spicy or hot.”

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 Ramadaan we have boeber, a sweetened milk drink.”

And what of my favourites, the koeksisters? “Ah, that’s the famous Sunday morning breakfast,” she says, smiling. “We weren’t allowed to practise 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 koeksisters.”

Not far 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 restaurateur. Most 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 halaal or Cape Malay food here,” she says, referring to the neighbourhood’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 and a tomato bredie, a classic comfort dish, a nourishing lamb and tomato stew that you sop up with a flaky, buttery roti. The, soft stewed sweet lamb infused with tamarind is like nothing I’ve eaten before. 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.

iol travel dec 23 nt bo kaap chicken curry

A unique Bo-Kaap take on a chicken dish.


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 “coloured,” – 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.” – the Washington Post

l Khan blogs at and tweets at @BySarahKhan.

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