With a history as varied as South Africa’s, it can be difficult for visitors to grasp its complexities during a short stay. Even more challenging is getting a feel for how events have impacted today’s citizens.
One way to get a more meaningful experience is to spend time with locals in their own homes. Many tours incorporate home visits, affording the opportunity to see how the locals live, and being able to chat with them about their everyday lives, while contributing to their often minimal income.
The colourful Bo-Kaap district in Cape Town
I did one such tour in Cape Town’s Bo-Kapp district, a cooking safari, which incorporated the city’s rich history with a home cooking lesson, offering a window into the world of a local Muslim family. It was an experience I cherished and wrote about for Discover, the Travellers Choice (travel agents) magazine.
So I was thrilled last week when the story was announced as a finalist in the Australian Society of Travel Writers annual awards for the Best Food Travel Story. As some of you have asked to see the story, I have posted it below.
Although I didn’t win the award (that went to my friend and colleague Christine Retschlag, aka The Global Goddess, for an intriguing story entitled Rough road from prison gate to plate) I was thrilled to be a finalist in the prestigious awards.
Culinary Cape Malay
A fragrant mix of sautéed onions, garlic, turmeric and chilli wafts through the small house as I squish slippery minced beef between my fingers. The little kitchen fills with happy banter as we, four guest,s try to recreate the classic dishes we’ve just eaten, under the guidance of head-scarfed Mimoena. I’m making bobotie, the famous Cape Malay dish of spicy beef topped with baked egg.
Mimoena supplements her small wage as a seamstress by hosting visitors in her home for a traditional Cape Malay lunch and cooking lesson; it’s part of a walking tour that opens a window into Cape Town’s Cape Malay district, known for its rainbow-coloured houses and spice trading companies.
Mimoena in her kitchen
The roots of the Cape’s Malay population date back to the 17th century when the Dutch East India Company established Cape Town as a halfway provisioning point on the major trading route between Asia and Europe. Slaves skilled in building, tailoring, gardening and cooking were transported from South East Asia, predominantly Indonesia, Java and Malaysia.
With the emancipation of slaves in 1834, many moved into the Bo-Kaap district, a settlement for disadvantaged communities. Perched on the slopes of Signal Hill with Table Mountain as a backdrop, Bo-Kaap has been listed as a National Monument for its concentration of pre-1840 architecture. Less than two kilometres in extent, the multicultural area is home to about 12,000 people.
Our guide, Shireen, meets us outside the Bo-Kaap Museum, housed in the oldest building in the district. Restored to represent a 19th century Cape Malay dwelling, the museum recounts the social history of the community. Evocative sepia images portray the stories of the building of Cape Town, the slave trade, the growth of Islam and the history of apartheid.
Across the road is the Atlas Trading Company, a third generation spice trading wholesaler. The pungent aroma from the cornucopia of spices wafts into the street.
The Atlas Trading Company
Huge timber bins are filled with finely ground spices in earthy shades and russet hues. Shelves are stacked with packets of seeds, lentils, beans, leaves, chillies and rice. I count 10 different masala mixes – including mother-in-law and father-in-law masala, and get my first whiff of frankincense and myrrh.
Back on the street it’s equally colourful with houses painted in vibrant shades of fuchsia, lavender, jade, sunflower and cobalt. Originally the Cape Dutch and Cape Georgian style houses were painted in pastel tones, it’s only in the last 50 years the colours have become more gregarious with about 15 to 30 houses being repainted every year.
About 70 per cent of the population here is Muslim and mosques are dotted between the houses, including the first mosque built in South Africa in 1794.
Fish for sale from the back of a ute
Arriving at Mimoena’s home she welcomes us into her small lounge where she has set a table for lunch. She serves crunchy samoosas, daltjies (chilli bites), fish curry, vegetable curry, yellow rice and bobotie. Over the shared meal Mimoena describes life in the Cape Malay community and confides how difficult it is for her children to find work in Cape Town.
Then she invites us into her kitchen. A white lace curtain hangs at the window and the bench is lined with pre-prepared ingredients. While Mimoena browns onions on a portable element I squidge soaked bread and myriad spices into washed mince for bobotie. Once that’s in the oven we attempt to wrap samoosas, giggling at our initial incompetence.
I may not remember all the spices for the perfect bobotie, but I cherish the hands-on opportunity to learn about Cape Malay history, culture and food on this inner-city safari.
The writer was guest of South African Tourism.
Did you know?
Slaves had one day off a year, when they paraded through the streets. To avoid punishment for singing about oppression they had to disguise themselves. Hence, the flamboyant costumes of today’s Cape Town Carnival.
Cooking safari www.andulela.com
Visit www.bokaap.co.za; www.southafrica.net