Cape Malay cooking is regarded as the closest thing to local traditional South African Cuisine that we have. The Cape Malay food is unique to the Cape Town area and consists of a fusion of Asian, Malaysian, African and European traditional ingredients. The Bo-Kaap district is where the Cape Malay people historically lived and it’s where you will find the most authentic Malay food.
The Cape Malay influence can be traced back to South Africa’s early days, when the Dutch East India Company needed a provisions station to supply ships bound for Malaysia. Jan van Riebeeck landed in the Cape in 1652 and established a farm to provide fresh vegetables and meat for ships rounding the Cape. Labourers were needed for the enterprise so the Dutch ships fetched slaves from Sumatra, who later became known as Cape Malays.
They brought with them their unique culture, traditions, recipes and spices, such as garlic, ginger, chilli, star anise, barishap (fennel), jeera (cumin), koljander (coriander seed), bay leaf, cardamom, cloves, dhania (coriander leaf), mustard seed, allspice, mint, fenugreek, saffron, nutmeg and tamarind.
In general, the Cape Malay exiles adhered to Islam, while the European settlers were Christian. This not only meant very different beliefs and customs, but also a completely different set of cooking techniques. In most cases, the modern Cape Malays adhere to their traditional Islam roots. The Malay people established and maintained extremely close bonds with one another, clinging to their unique culture and belief system. The Bo-Kaap is still known as the heart of the Cape Malay people.
The flavours are well-known to locals, and remain a major part of the South African food culture. Due to its unique quality, Cape Malay cooking has become an important part of the South African identity, as well as of the tourist experience, who are always keen to learn more about this in cooking classes.
Some examples of Cape Malay cuisine that have survived to tempt palates to today include smoorsnoek– snoek cooked over a fire or simmered with onions and tomatoes; oumens onder die kombers (old person under the blanket) – meat patties wrapped in cabbage leaves; denningvleis – slow-cooked leg of lamb with chillies, spices and vinegar; and bobotie – meatloaf with onion, sultanas, almonds, bay leaves and spices, topped with egg custard.
Please also note that Cape Malay dishes will always be based on each family’s personal taste preference and the selection of fresh produce availability. Food is an international language, spoken world wide and one is never too old or too young to learn and to understand this. It should always be respected, for it’s not just a recipe that’s been passed on from generation to generation … but a story … a story of family, love and survival.