Food is a very important component of any foreign travel experience. To really appreciate and learn about a culture I like to eat locally – to try the dishes that people eat in their homes, to eat at local restaurants off the tourist path and, whenever possible, to learn to cook some of the more common dishes. Here in Cape Town I feel fortunate because I’ve found a local tour guide who will not only show me around one of the most interesting neighbourhoods, the Bo-Kaap, but will also take me to visit a woman who will teach me to make some “Cape Malay” dishes – local food – in her home. I’m excited!
The Bo-Kaap, formerly known as the Malay Quarter, is essentially a township within Cape Town. It sits just above the city centre and is the centre of the Cape Malay culture consisting largely of people of Southeast Asian descent (from Java, Indonesia and Dutch Malacca).
The community’s earliest members were enslaved by the Dutch East India Company and were among the first to bring the Islam religion to South Africa. The history of this fascinating and culturally rich community is explained in detail at the Bo-Kaap Museum where I meet up with my guide, Shireen Narkadien (firstname.lastname@example.org). Shireen is a walking encyclopedia of everything related to the Bo-Kaap and the Cape’s Muslim culture. She was born, raised and still lives within this community. She is smart, funny and well read. The museum itself dates back to 1760 and is located on the site of the oldest house in the community maintained in its original form. While the museum highlights the cultural and economic contributions made by the early Muslim settlers to Cape Town, having grown up here Shireen is able to add depth and colour to that history with stories of her own.
As we ramble about the streets of the Bo-Kaap Shireen tells me tales of some of the families and businesses that have been here for generations. It’s a beautiful area, perched on a hill with houses painted in bright colours and cobblestone streets.
Apparently fashion houses around the world use the backdrop of the Bo-Kaap regularly for fashion shoots – the weather is good and the setting is unique and fun. Many of the houses re-paint and change colours every few years. Since the demise of apartheid however this area has been undergoing a slow process of gentrification. Properties in the Bo-Kaap are highly desirable given its proximity to downtown Cape Town. In turn, long term residents of this close-knit community are starting to complain about the loss of character and distinctive culture as more wealthy “outsiders” move in.
We stop at the Atlas Trading Co. which, since 1946 has been an institution for spices in the neighbourhood.
It might be possible to walk right by the front door of their new location (a few doors up from where I took the above photo) and miss this store altogether, except for the amazing smell of the spices that beckon. I notice a couple of masalas among the 20 or so different ones available the have quite odd names. I laugh and ask Shireen about these spices called “Mother-in-law Masala” and “Father-in-law Masala”.
She explains that when a woman in the Bo-Kaap cooks for her father-in-law he will almost always be kind and appreciative – regardless of the quality of her cooking. He will not complain or criticize. For this reason she will generally use ‘Father-in-law Masala’ when he comes to visit because it has a gentle, even flavour. However, when this same woman cooks for her mother-in-law she often has to put-up with comments, criticism and disapproval regarding the quality of her food. Out of respect and tradition, she’s not allowed to say anything in return. However, on the next occasion the mother-in-law comes to visit this same woman may decide to prepare the food using ‘Mother-in-law Masala’. This masala tastes gentle at first but soon offers up a strong spicy-kick. It’s a tactic used by the woman to get even with her mother-in-law for the nasty comments!
We’re on our way to the home of Jasmina Isaac and her family. Jasmina has opened her home for the day in order to teach me to make some of the typical Cape Malay dishes including samosas, curry chicken, roti, chilli bites and koesisters. Jasmina has been cooking since she was ten years old when her mother fell ill and had to spend time in the hospital. She has a wonderful sense of humour and loves to sing and dance. After only a few minutes together I feel as if we’ve been friends for years.
While the dishes we make bear a strong resemblance to Indian cooking I find the flavours less spicy and more complex. Jasmina teaches me the secret to her samosas and how to fold the pastry neatly. Working in the kitchen together is a bonding experience for women from every culture. It’s about so much more than just making the food and I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity for this type of experience, with these women. As we enjoy the dishes we’ve prepared we compare our lives, our families and our stories.
At some point during the course of our conversation I learn that Shireen has masterminded the production of a cookbook called, appropriately, “The Bo-Kaap Kitchen”. It profiles a large number of the women in from the Bo-Kaap –including Shireen and Jasmina – presents some of their recipes, as well as historical photos and stories from the community.
I’m thrilled to be able to get my hands on a copy of this wonderful book from Shireen at the end of my visit. Bo-Kaap cooking will be going Parisian! I give Jasmina and Shireen each a big hug good-bye with my cookbook in one hand and my “doggie bag” of samosas and koesisters in the other. It’s been another extraordinary day in this endlessly fascinating city.
Note: If you’re ever in Cape Town I’d highly recommend contacting Shireen for any one of her tours. She’s a wonderful person and a wealth of information and great stories. Bo-Kapp Guided Tours.