Trying the Malay cuisine in Cape Town

Trying the Malay cuisine in Cape Town
Photo Credit: Dinodia

Go on a culinary journey through Cape Town with the author

Bishakha Datta
November 26 , 2014
13 Min Read

Now if we’re talking names, Cape Town’s Malay cuisine wins hands down: what can top the bobotie, the bredie or the sosatie? Not to mention koeksister, sweet sibling not of cook or coke, but of cake. But if we’re talking pomp and pageantry, it’s got to be the Ethiopian injera, the large, round flatbread that is placed on a huge communal dish, like a Bohri thaal, and mopped up with the stews and curries soaking into it. And if we’re talking the pleasures of the palate, I doff my hat to the slow-cooked meat tagines of Morocco — the first one I had sealed itself into my taste buds forever.

I used to think of African cuisine much like I still think of American cricket — there, but basic. A culinary molehill. Then I went to Egypt in 1989, which, at least in a continental sense, is Africa. No internet to tell you what to eat where when how, thank god, so everything was a discovery. I love the internet, that’s not the issue. I just don’t like every self-anointed foodie’s tastes pushing my palate. My friend and I survived our ragtag holiday on street food in Cairo — giant bowls of kushari, an Egyptian-style khichdi of rice, dal, macaroni topped with fried brown onions, washed down with karkade or hibiscus juice. We were students and we went to the same street shop for the same taste of browned onions every single day. And then we ate falafel and fava every night.

Two days before Diwali last year, as parts of India are madly stocking up on gold coins, I land in Cape Town with three sleepy men and a heavy head. The Star shouts out that an eighteen-year-old white girl has been set on fire in a satanic ritual in Joburg. So much for the marketing slogan, ‘Alive with possibility’, the South African equivalent of our ‘Incredible India’. Dr Ali Bacher, famed batsman and captain of yore, picks us up. A stocky, genial raconteur who’s often hunched on his iPhone — that’s Ali. He and his jaunty wife, Shira, both of Lithuanian-Jewish descent, are our South Africa Tourism hosts. Ali’s known for many things: his fielding skills, organising rebel tours when apartheid South Africa was no cricketer’s land, captaining many a winning side and what not. Unbeknownst to me, he tests my knowledge of Indian cricket, finds it lacking and scores me a duck. Now that’s what happens when you’re one of the two women in a male crew.

Cape Town is in full feel-good sunshine mode, despite the sad stretch of tin-roofed boxes with wire fencing that don’t look like anything anyone should call home. I’ve been here before so I perfect my patina of polite disinterest as we sweep past the hospital where Christiaan Barnard carried out his heart transplants. I admire the deep sky blue of the Indian Ocean from afar and want to jump in. I longingly look at Biesmiellah, a streetside café whose spelling makes me feel there’s something I want inside. We walk the cobbled streets of the Bo-Kaap, a playful experiment in chromatics, with its wash of red green mauve yellow houses and multi-coloured mosques. The houses remind me of San Francisco, but they don’t tumble down to the ocean from high on up in quite the same way. This is where some of the ‘coloured’ people — or the Cape Malays — used to live, and still do, but now that it’s all heritage and gentrifying, it’s also becoming a Place To Be for others.

The day finally comes ‘alive with possibility’ as a giant platter is placed before us, a platter heaped with delights known and unknown. We fall on the food as if famine is imminent, onto keema samosas — no, they call them samoosas — savoury chickpea balls, strawberry tartlets and what not. There’s a sweet brown fried thing that I later learn is, yes, a koeksister. It tastes like a coconut-flavoured doughnut, but is a tad too sweet for me. The sister’s been called a distant cousin of the gulab jamun, but no one still knows who carried it to the Cape: the Dutch, whose ships would dock here as they cargoed spices from Asia to Holland? Or the Indians and Indonesians ferried in as farm labour and now known as Cape Malays?

We’re at the Noon Gun Tea Room and Restaurant, home to family-style Cape Malay food; food that landed up on the city’s shores in the seventeenth century; food that’s a mongrel mix of there and here, past and present. It’s a sobering thought. If slavery hadn’t existed, what culinary legacy could this city claim? The café’s up on a hill, Signal Hill, and some twenty steps away from the cannon — or noon gun — that is fired daily at the aforesaid moment. It started as a sound alert for ships to keep track of time if they’d lost it and continues more out of custom than need in this digital age.

The food at Noon Gun is not legion. It’s not the kind that wins awards or inspires prolix prose, although the location might: green hills and coloured houses and blue seas. Being in the café feels more like being in someone’s living room and eating what the family eats, and that is precisely its charm. The hosts eat halal and don’t drink alcohol, so neither do you, as a guest in their home. Like many home-run enterprises, they don’t work Sundays or holidays. I was wickedly entertained by online complaints from customers in search of bookings on New Year’s Day. “The manageress was non-committal,” said one. “Said she would have to consult with her staff...This wishy-washy attitude is not conducive...”

We leave Noon Gun without tasting the bobotie, a casseroled mishmash of mince and fruit topped with egg custard that may have been a Malay way to deal with Sunday’s roast meat leftovers. Sort of like a keema ghotala, I gather. The stewbie in me lusts after the denningsvleis, a mutton stew flavoured with tamarind, and the bredie, a mutton stew that’s made with tomatoes, cabbage, beans or waterblommetjies — little water flowers.

No complaints. It’s late afternoon and I’ve mentally kicked ahead to the Mount Nelson Hotel, where I had the most mouth-watering afternoon tea on my last visit. But flash-forwarding, even mentally, from Noon Gun to the Mount Nelson is like travelling back in time. If Noon Gun was the food of the slaves, this is the food of the masters. If that had a contemporary hybridity, this is colonial purity at its daintiest. If that was the rumble-tumble of home, this is white porcelain and pressed napkins and lawn tables bearing finger sandwiches of roast beef and rocket, smoked salmon, cucumber sandwiches, tarts, quiches, scones with clotted cream, petits four, lemon meringue and iced cakes. There’s a smattering of the local too: bonsai versions of merlktert or milk tart and koeksister, and rooibos, the red bush tea that grows in this area and has a mild gum taste.

Over the years, ‘tea at the Nellie’ has gone up from being a culinary peak to becoming an icon. It’s won the Best High Tea in the World award, although strictly speaking, afternoon tea is low tea (named after the low-slung tables on which it was served), while high tea is northern British working-class slang for dinner. It’s a memorable meal all right, so long as one can deal with the discomfort of a largely “bleck” and coloured population in starched white gloves, serving a largely white clientele.

But then that’s the whole race thing in Cape Town. It lurks below the surface in ways that don’t sit easily, the proverbial elephant in the room. It reminds me of poverty in Mumbai, where I live, but there it’s the reverse: the poor are literally in your face and you must somehow deal with it and them. On my flight from Mumbai to Cape Town, I chat with a South African woman of Indian origin in her early 60s; she comes to the Mount Nelson to pick me up for dinner, but she won’t step into the lobby. I beseech and coax and cajole, but she insists she’ll wait outside until I’m ready. For much of her life, places like this were off-limits to her; all those memories can’t suddenly be pushed aside by putting one foot across the porch.

It is now late evening and the sausage is on the grill. Not any old sausage, but the boerewors, an incredibly tasty farmers’ sausage that is curled in concentric circles and like everything here, has a backstory. Yes, yes, it came from the Dutch verse worst. So yes, we’re at a poolside braai, or a barbecue with fish, prawn and beef, but the braai is not just any old barbecue. It has roots and was discovered when migrating wagoners shot game and braai-ed them over hot coals in the 1700s. It has rules, and the smokiest braais still do coal. And its own myths, like only “main” (men) know how to braai. “This is main’s business,” say braai-ers on YouTube. “Serious main’s business.” Presumably women join these hallowed ranks, at least on September 24, when the entire country is expected to, as one blogger put it, Braai, the Beloved Country. Yeah, that’s Braai Day.

On my last trip here, I tried braai-ed warthog — I remember it being deliciously juicy, perhaps the most succulent meat I’ve ever had, but I’ve yet to come across it a second time. Ah, time turns liquid at last at Tagore’s, a late-night bar that feels like a salon, with the poet gazing out in princely profile. The Irish whiskey starts flowing and all I remember is deep red velvet and smoky rooms and straggly groups and spoken word and snatch of music and another glass and same song playing and some voices and now they’re raised and now they’re higher and the talk gets testy. You know how it is when there’s too much testo in the room.

After a long night of debauchery, you want to go hide your head in a dark hole, right? I can’t face the sausage at breakfast. Neither can I eye the eggs; the yolks look like pale indictments. Three grim faces peer out of The Times. Two ministers have been fired and a police commissioner suspended. Ali adds the missing context to this, and tells us of his first trip to India — how his flight landed up in Mumbai instead of Delhi, how he negotiated the crazy crowds at New Delhi station and somehow made it to Kanpur in time for the test match.

All we must do this morning is gaze at the ocean — through a glass, darkly. We’re on our way to Hermanus, a couple of hours south of the city, to watch the whales that come there every year. We pass gulls and cormorants and clumps of pretty proteas and crosses for fishermen who were washed out to sea while fishing from the rocks. We get off along the False Bay coast and sun ourselves like seals. We eat crab salad and local mussels at a lodge with a view and I recover enough to wash it down with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc. Just one glass.

The morning is a slow succession of small moments building up to a whale of a time. By mid-afternoon we’re at Gansbaai, or Goose Bay, where we board the Ivanhoe, a catamaran that will take us out to sea. It all starts out calmly enough. Jason, the “keptin”, stands up front, the best spot to spot whales. He reminds us not to feed the whales or respond to them. The sun is sharply overhead and the sea is burnt out. Clayton, man of many parts, starts laying out hors d’oeuvres and filling glasses with champagne, presumably in anticipation of a sighting. Just as he gets up to serve the first round, the Ivanhoe heaves and lists to one side, then starts lurching from side to side. The hors d’oeuvres collapse. The champagne is put away. Some of us turn a whiter shade of pale. We slide from one edge of our seat to the other, clinging on to the seatback for safety, while being sprayed with seawater. Slowly we start seeing fins, then black shapes, then a fluke comes out of the water and we know it’s a whale. It’s not dramatic, like seeing tigers in the wild. But it creeps up on you and there’s something about these giant mammals that holds you. There are three whales beside the boat, southern right whales that come from Antarctica every summer. From July to November, when the whales are here, the boats do up to four trips a day. They also photograph the callosities, the unique wart-like bumps on the head of each whale, so they know how many have actually come. It’s usually about a hundred.

We hear the whales blowing and see them rolling over, but we don’t see them lunging out with full force. There’s a whale cow with a calf in the distance. But it’s best to steer clear of the mother-child combo, or of whales which start breathing heavily, or flapping their fins, all classic signs of aggression. The whales glide below our boat. They seem like underwater aeroplanes or zeppelins, and at 55,000 kilos, weigh about as much as the ones we fly in.

Before we leave this area the next morning, we stop at a wine farm in the Paarl region. We pass villages where workers are still paid part of their wages in wine and where kids are still born with birth defects due to foetal alcohol syndrome. We’re each entitled to taste six wines, but end up tasting eighteen, by ordering different wines in each category, sharing them, solemnly ranking them and getting more of the ones we like. The big names are all there, the Merlots, the Shirazes, the Cabernets and the Rieslings, and a Bordeaux-inspired blend called Bored Doe. But the tastes I carry back from here are the blends: the Pinotage, which is itself a mix of Pinot Noir and Hermitage grapes, then Pinotage blended with Viognier, and finally a heady mix of Shiraz, Mourvèdre, Petit Syrah, Grenache and Tannat — grapes I’ve never heard of till now, let alone tried.

Forget the tagines of North Africa and the thaals of Ethiopia. For liquid time, my vote remains with Cape Town.


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