Asian Islamic Flavours :|: South Africa

Although the majority of South Africans are Christians, there is a pretty big Islamic community in the country. After all, Nizamiye Masjid, the biggest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere, is in Jozi. The first ones to introduce Islam to South Africa were the Cape Malays. They were brought over by the Dutch to the Province of the Cape of Good Hope from Indonesia which was at the time their major colony and the pride of the Dutch Empire. Most were slaves sent to work on the plantations in the province and political prisoners sent in exile for defying Dutch authority in Indonesia.

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Nizamiye Masjid, the biggest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere

During apartheid, the Cape Malays (Kaapse Maleiers in Afrikaans) were living in the Malay Quarter, a township on the slopes of Signal Hill in Cape Town. The quarter is now Bo-Kaap, a major tourist attraction with its cobble stone streets and bright neon houses. It has become a very recent tradition for residents in Bo-Kaap to paint their houses in such colors, the purpose initially was to celebrate Eid but now, it seems more of something just for fun. I once passed by Bo-Kaap in October and a few men were priming a lavender purple house to repaint it bright mustard yellow.

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The colorful Bo-Kaap

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If you ever go to Bo-Kaap, do stop by Biesmiellah, a small local restaurant for some authentic Cape Malay flavours. The restaurant does not serve alcohol and you will not find any pork dish since the restaurant respects Islamic dietary restrictions.

Many Cape Malay dishes are thought to be Afrikaans such as bobotie or tomato bredie but the dishes are very much a marriage of East and West. For example, bobotie is a dish of ground meat (beef or lamb) baked in the oven with an egg custard topping and some bay leaves, often served with rice, roasted veggies and sambals (side dishes). Sounds like a typical Dutch meatloaf but the ground coriander, curry powder, paprika and turmeric powder in the seasoning add the Asian touch to the dish. The chutney, almonds and raisins mixed with the seasoning give the dish a tropical fruity sweet and sour taste. Bobotie is thought to be inspired by bobotok (or botok), an Indonesia dish.

Botok (left) and Bobotie (right) at District Six Eatery in Emmerentia, Johannesburg

Bobotie coming out of oven

Tomato stews are something I find quite common in European cuisine but the tomato bredie combines some of that European taste with Asian flavours such as paprika and ginger powder and often served with basmati rice, or in the case that I had it at Biesmiellah in Cape Town, with yellow rice.

Some other Cape Malay food have Indian influence, like the Cape Malay samosas for example. Something I love about Cape Town is that you can grab some samosas as snacks almost anywhere: all convenient stores, gas stations or snack shops at the train stations would sell samosas. I always knew samosas were Indian cuisine but I never knew that Cape Malays have taken the Indian dish and adapted to their style. This is due to intermarriage between the two communities during colonization and apartheid.

And talking about snacks, another dish you can find are koeksisters which is deep-fried dough coated with syrup. Afrikaans have their koeksisters in braid shapes while Cape Malays shape them into balls. Nowadays, you can find koeksisters on the street in the CBD or in Zandspruit (a township), along the main street while waiting for taxis.

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Another dish with Indian influence that you’ll be sure to find in every Cape Malay restaurant is lamb curry.

Another Cape Malay dish I haven’t had the chance to try is sosaties which is just skewered meat, grilled shish kebab-style but like all other Cape Malay dishes, sosaties get the Asian flavours from curry leaves and tamarind juice marinate.

Learning and researching on Cape Malay food has really made me reflect on Vietnamese culture and how certain dishes I’ve made are also a fusion of French and Vietnamese flavours.

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