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Cape Malay Cooking:
The Cape Malay Influence in South African Cooking


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by Meryl Grebe

With their soft, caramel skins and wide smiles, the Cape Malay people are a prized and proud element of the South African culture.

The first group of Malaysian state prisoners landed on the shores of South Africa from Java and the neighboring Indonesian islands in the late 1600's. Many more followed in the years 1727 until 1749. Not only did this proud and attractive people bring with them the Moslem faith and fine architecture, they also brought with them a unique cookery style, introducing exciting mixtures of pungent spices that has had a heady influence on traditional South African cuisine. Indeed, the Malay-Portuguese words such as bobotie (a curried ground beef and egg custard dish), sosatie (kebabs marinated in a curry mixture) and bredie (slowly cooked stews rich in meat, tomatoes and spices) are integral in our cookery vocabulary.


Dr. Christian Louis Leipoldt, great Cape born surgeon, poet, esteemed chef and wine connoisseur who died in 1947, left a rich and amusing account and recipes for a number of Malay dishes in his book, 'Leipoldt's Cape Cookery', eventually published in 1976. Noted for his aversion to weights and measures, his recipes are liberally sprinkled with 'a hint of this' or 'a scattering', 'a pinch' of that.

In 1946 he wrote of an interest in cookery that dated back to the late 1880's when he was just a small boy, where, under the guidance a spotless if obese, expert Cape Coloured woman, he greedily devoured her culinary magic and expertise in the preparation of Malay cookery. "The Ayah's art was the result of many years of instruction and experience in the traditional methods of Malay cookery, whose outstanding characteristics are the free, almost heroic use of spices and aromatic flavourings, the prolonged steady, but slow application of moist heat to all meat dishes, and the skillful blending of many diverse constituents into a combination that still holds the essential goodness of each," he wrote.

It all began in 1652, when the Cape of Good Hope was born, a stop in South Africa for ships of the East India Company of Holland on their way east. Immigrants from Europe, convicts from China, slaves from Mozambique and the prisoners from Java soon increased the populace of the seaside village bringing with them their unique cookery skills. A multi-ethnic cuisine emerged, and one can only imagine the aromas emanating from kitchens producing highly spiced dishes from Dutch, Italian, Portuguese and especially oriental recipes handed down for generations.

The Malay influence comes through in the curries, chilies and extensive use of spices such as ginger, cinnamon and turmeric. More Malay magic comes through the use of fruit cooked with meat, marrying sweet and savoury flavours, with hints of spice, curry and other seasonings. The food has a nuance of seductive spiciness, true testament to the culinary capabilities of Malay women world wide. I cannot think of a dried apricot without the image of a caramel coloured woman, grinning widely, a wooden spoon in her hand, gently stirring a pot of simmering curry and fruit. Splendid!

Leipoldt wrote;
"To make a bobotie it is necessary to have clean hands, for you must knead the meat as you do a dough. Take then of tender mutton and the backstring (fillet) of pork of each a pound in weight, and that without fat or hard part; pound it vigourously in your mortar, with a handful of blanched almonds, 12 pepper corns, a slice of green ginger, a chili, a leaf of the herb marjoram, some coriander seeds, a very small piece of fresh garlic, or if you have none of it, half a leaf of an onion, and the grated rind of a lemon, and work into it half a cupful of wine in which you have soaked an ounce of tamarind. Let it stand overnight. Then, beat into it half a cupful of cream and two tablespoonsful of good butter, not too much salt, and knead it well. Shape it into a round loaf and put it into an earthenware pie-dish that you have well smeared inside with butter and sprinkled with a few cumin seeds. Put it in the oven and when it gets hot and expands, but not before, pour over it two cups of milk in which you have beaten up the yolks of three eggs and a tablespoonsful of curry powder such as you may get at the Malay store. Let it bake till it is well set, and then put upon it a few blanched almonds and a grating of nutmeg. Before you send it to table you may, if you are not pleased with its top colour, pass a hot salamander over it."

I think that our Cape Malay bobotie recipe may be a little simpler and just as good. However, for the hardy and brave, try this method and enjoy a little bit of South Africa.

I plan to, tomorrow.




Cape Malay South Africa recipes:


Cape Malay bobotie

Bobotie is a curried ground beef dish, baked in a rich egg custard. Some recipes call for you to combine the curry powder with the ground beef, whilst others advise you to fry the curry powder with the onions. The method is really unimportant. Once the custard covering the beef begins to bake, it keeps the meat moist and absorbs the fragrance of the curry and spices. What makes bobotie a popular traditional South African dish is that it is exceptional served hot with boiled rice, but just as good served cold with a peppery green salad with a tart vinaigrette dressing.

Cape Malay sosatie

Sosaties are kebabs or kabobs as they are also known, marinated for a few days in a thick, sweet curry sauce. The lengthy duration of marinating ensures that the meat is tender, and the aroma that wafts from an open barbecue is so divine that you will have the neighbours popping in to visit on the offchance of an invitation to dinner! Sosaties can be made using pork, mutton, lamb or chicken marinated in the same sauce and are a delicious and popular choice at barbecues or "braais" as they are called here in South Africa.

Cape Malay bredie

Bredie is a slowly cooked stew rich in meat that marries with the taste of tomatoes, a popular ingredient in a bredie, and other vegetables. The secret to this traditional winter time meal is the use of good quality, fatty mutton rib. Here in South Africa we get an edible lily called a "waterblommetjie" or little water flower which is often used in bredie cookery. Fruit too is sometimes used to make these stews the gravy of which should always be thick and never watery. Soul food from South Africa for cold evenings.




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