On a warm Capetonian morning we venture down Wale Street, the main avenue running through Cape Town’s most colourful neighbourhood, the Bo Kaap.
In front of the Atlas Trading Company, a spice market piled high with little parcels of brightly coloured powders, we meet Gamidah Jacobs, the owner of Lekka Kombuis, who will lead us on our explorations of the Cape Malay quarter.
Strolling up the picturesque cobbled lane, past the brightly coloured houses trimmed neatly in white, friendly locals waving from the balconies, some even posing comically for photos, it’s hard to believe this friendly neighbourhood was born of such turmoil.
When Dutch settlers arrived in the Cape, they brought across slaves of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian heritage, and with them the spices of their homelands. When slavery was abolished, many of these skilled workers came to settle in what was to become to Bo Kaap.
Years later when South Africa fell into the dark, turbulent days of apartheid, this neighbourhood was declared a space for the predominately Muslim Cape Malay population to reside exclusively.
Today this colourful pocket of houses on the slopes of Signal Hill remains a close-knit community, and behind the colourful facades the recipes of those ancestors live on through a fusion of African and Malay flavours and years of experimentation that lead to the creation of the Cape Malay cuisine. A way for its people to connect both with each other and their heritage.
As we continue on past the Auwal Mosque, the oldest in the city, and through a painted archway we arrive at a bright turquoise house – Gamidah’s home.
Inside the kitchen Gamidah is a warm and beaming hostess, eager to impart wisdom of her culture and the flavours woven through the stories of her ancestors.
First up we turn our attention to the most important ingredients of any Cape Malay dish – the spices. With the sweet aroma of sizzling onions already filling the kitchen, we set about adding large dollops of the vibrant powders that will make the base of our curry.
The effect is immediate.
Earthy notes of turmeric and a faint punch of chilli permeate the room. Our big breakfasts now long forgotten as our bellies grumble for a taste of these new exotic scents filling the air.
In go the potatoes and chicken (lentils for the vegetarians) and some water and we leave the pot to simmer away furiously, the flavours infusing in the background.
We move on to the sides and now comes the moment to get our fingers a little dirty. We’re making rotis, samosas and chilli bites from scratch.
Combining flour, water and a sprinkling of salt we dive right in, kneading to form a dough. Out on the counter, covered in possibly more dough than appears to be on our cooking surface, Gamidah comes to the rescue liberally sprinkling us all with flour.
In perfectly divided portions we roll out the dough, add a liberal smear of butter and roll them into dainty little spiral balls – these will wait for later.
Now for the samosas.
Gamidah leans in to taste our spiced chicken filling, a quizzical expression crossing her face. ‘More love, I think’, she murmurs, glancing up at us, by which, we come to learn, she means salt.
After a generous sprinkling of the white grains, our gracious host agrees that now enough love has indeed been added to the dish and we may continue.
Our eyes drawn to every crease made as she artfully demonstrates how to fold the little parcel, and within a few seconds we are presented with a perfectly folded triangle of pastry, housing our now properly seasoned filling.
We set about folding our own little pockets of spiced goodness only to quickly realise that this pastry origami is not as easy as our skilled hostess made it look. Before long we are mending holes in the delicate paper-thin sheets and picking up bits of filling that have escaped from the corners of our not-at-all-neatly folded samosas.
We struggle along and by our fourth and fifth attempts we are able to hand over a pocket that is not quite perfect but at least is able to retain its filling. As we gaze down at our many failed attempts, Gamidah stops by to assist in mending the tiny pockets our less nimble fingers have deemed beyond repair.
She is clearly the samosa queen and could easily fold a hundred of them in her sleep.
With the rich smell of the simmering curries continually wafting through the kitchen, intensifying as we work, we move on to the final accompaniments.
The roti dough, now rested in the fridge, is rolled into as perfectly round flat breads as we can manage and tossed into a pan. Flours and spices are thrown together with some crisp spinach and added in individual scoops to a bubbling pot of oil, along with the samosas.
With all the elements finishing off on the heat, we move on to the final stage – the sambal, a sweet yet zesty mix of tomatoes and onions with generous lashings of apricot jam and malt vinegar to brighten the earthy flavours of the dish.
After a few hours in the kitchen, Gamidah has timed the creation of each item to perfection. Our main meal and accompaniments appear from the stove simultaneously and we pile our plates high, ready to satiate the impatient moans that have been building in our stomachs during the afternoon.
‘You’ll notice there is no cutlery on the table’, Gamidah says with a cheeky grin, a fact that had completely escaped our attention.
We would instead be dining with our edible cutlery, the roti.
With permission to abandon all usual dining etiquette, we tear off large wedges of the delectably flaky bread and make broad strokes across our plates, attempting not so successfully to pick up bits of curry along with the tangy sambal. The final combination of flavours sing as they touch our palates.
A deliciously aromatic morsel rolling between our teeth, a chilli bite in one hand and sauce-covered fingers on the other, we realise with much amusement that we are thoroughly enjoying ourselves.
The samosas are an instant hit, and while many look more lopsided triangle than artfully folded pocket, the taste is what really counts.
In fact, we realise, it’s all about the flavour, and with its name roughly translating at ‘tasty kitchen’ you should expect nothing less. This style of food is not meant to be delicate or prettied up. It is homely, comfortable and unpretentious. It is, above all, meant to bring people together and be enjoyed.
Harking back, food for the Cape Malay was a way to reconnect with their ancestral roots and come together as a community. It is the bold earthy flavours, vibrant burnt hues and generous sprinklings of ‘love’ that run through each mouthful and give this cuisine its distinct identity, one that forms an iconic part of South Africa’s story.
Big thanks to Gamidah Jacobs of Lekka Kombuis for inviting us to participate in her Cape Malay cooking class.
We may not have quite perfected the art of samosa folding (yet) but we had a genuinely great time cooking up a storm in her kitchen, enjoying her warm hospitality and some deliciously flavourful food.
You can find further information on the cooking class and tour here:
or for reservations you can get in touch via email.