I was a little worried walking into the house at #109 on the slopes of Signal Hill. Before my trip to Cape Town I’d never heard of Cape Malay; I knew nothing about the people or culture; and certainly had no idea what comprised a traditional Cape Malay dish. What I did know was that I am a picky eater, a very picky eater in fact and I was worried that the impending meal would be a disaster. Not a personal disaster per se, I’ve been confronted with many a dish I couldn’t eat. No, I was more worried about insulting our kind host who had invited us into her home for the afternoon. Little did I know that beneath my picky eating veneer lay dormant a fiend for Cape Malay cuisine. (Follow this link to read my Cape Malay Recipes)
Faldela Tolker, our instructor for the day, was born in District Six of Cape Town, a name with an all too pregnant connotation for Capetonians. Like many, she and her family were relocated during the apartheid era and she now calls the colorful Bo Kaap neighborhood of Cape Town her home. Bo Kaap may be the heart of the Cape Malay population but the spirit of the community cannot be contained and it has influenced Cape Town culture, especially its food, for generations.
The earliest members of the ethnic group known today as Cape Malay arrived as slaves and were brought to Cape Town from Southeast Asia by the Dutch. Future generations including (now) Indonesian Muslim leaders who were sent into exile and forced to resettle in South Africa. Cape Malays also have a South Asian or Indian heritage, and it was their influence that brought Islam to South Africa. Over time their cultural, and culinary adaptations became ingrained into daily life in South Africa, especially the food and especially in Cape Town.
I was there along with some other travel bloggers as the guest of Cape Town Tourism, who partnered with the innovative tour company Andulela Tours. We had several experiences with Andulela and I was impressed by their message of responsible tourism. Rather than just put together standard walks and tours, they work with locals to bring visitors into their lives. The Cape Malay cooking class is a great example, but they also coordinate visits to the homes of local musicians and match up people who actually live in certain areas of town to lead tours of those neighborhoods. It seems like a simple concept, which it is, but it’s something I haven’t seen a lot of and the Andulela tours were some of my favorite moments in Cape Town.
I stepped into the colorful house at #109 and was immediately met by the overflowing personality of Faldela. There was no time for lounging about; we were immediately put to work in the creation of our very own Cape Malay lunch. I wasn’t exactly sure what was on the menu that day, but the kitchen already smelled delicious. The small house was a mix of a thousand spices and herbs and it just felt like home. We all had jobs during the class, some watched the mixtures boiling on the stove top burners, still others were making and rolling dough. As a group we came together to make roti and samosas from scratch, skill sets I will hopefully treasure and enhance for the rest of my life.
Along the way we talked, a lot. One of the first lessons Faldela imparted to us was the importance of salt in her cooking. Not too much of course, but just enough for the proper effect. “Salt is love,” she said and throughout the day she gently reminded the novice cooks when something needed “a little more love.” That effervescent personality Faldela radiated made the entire experience not a chore, but a delight. Her constant jokes and gentle ribbing when we made mistakes were emblems of a rare quality; to make anyone feel at ease instantly. It’s the mark of a great host and I reveled in the opportunity to live through the experience firsthand.
During one of my many attempts to make the blob of roti dough look less blob-like, I glanced at the refrigerator and noticed an Obama 2008 Presidential magnet. I raised an eyebrow; I certainly wasn’t expecting to see that. I asked and she said, “Don’t tell anybody, but he’s my President too.” For years Faldela has been hosting American students for homestays and has built up not only an affinity for the U.S., but apparently for our President as well. It was an interesting thing to see and the fact that she and her family regularly host not just day visitors, but students for weeks at a time proves how much she wants to share her culture with as many people as possible.
Before our class we had stopped by the local spice store for a lesson in spices. We were told to memorize specific ones in order to help with the cooking process. What I didn’t realize was the multiple ways in which they could be used. As Faldela was picking through the curry leaves for instance, she looked up and asked if we knew what else they could be used for. The blank looks on our faces was her immediate answer and she said, “Take seven curry leaves, steep them in warm water and add a few drops of lemon juice to help recover from hangovers and just general crankiness.” Duly noted, I may have to carry curry leaves with me at all times.
We’d been in the kitchen for a while and the smells were almost too much to take, in all the right ways. I was hungry before we even started the class and the aromas of Cape Malay cooking wafting through the house were causing my taste buds to perk up at full attention. The final moment was approaching though I could sense it. We were frying the roti and Faldela was huddled over the stove preparing something else, something I guess she didn’t want us to screw up. Then, all of a sudden, we were shooed out of the kitchen while a dining room table was set up in our former workspace.
Before I knew it, the table we had been using to roll dough was transformed into a lovely lunch set up, just awaiting some hungry tourists. We all tried to be civil, but as soon as the appetizers were set on the table we attacked the goodies like hungry wolves.
On the menu to start the meal were the delicious samosas we had made earlier in the day. Although some looked strangely misshapen, the filling Faldela prepared of chicken, corn, spinach and feta was delicious regardless of our poor samosa folding techniques. My favorite appetizer though was one of the dishes prepared without our assistance, which was ultimately for the best given our not so great culinary backgrounds; Top Chef this wasn’t. Dhaltjies or chilli bites are made from chickpeas, onion, turmeric and other yummy things, which is made into a dough and deep-fried. When served with a sweet chili sauce these little balls of fried heaven are like nothing else. I could’ve sat there happily munching away on them all day, which I very nearly did until Faldela interrupted with the main course, the one which had been simmering all afternoon.
With delicate ease Faldela placed a heaping bowl of chicken curry on the table. I was worried about the heat from the spice, but from the first bite I was in culinary ecstasy. When served with potatoes and roti, the meal may have looked simple but all of us around the table knew that it was an intricate blend of style and substance. Yes you have to have the right spices and herbs to really perfect Cape Malay cooking, but you also have to have a lot of love, and I’m not talking about salt.
We finished the meal off with some tea and koeksisters, a Cape Malay doughnut I’d come to love during our brief stay in Cape Town. Under the table Faldela’s three-year-old granddaughter was laughing and playing and somewhere in the distance I could hear a ceremony commencing at one of the local mosques. Just outside the door older kids in starchy school uniforms were joking and running down the street, eager to change into more suitable play garments. I looked around at my colleagues, my fellow chefs for the day and I could tell we all had the same thought. More than just learn about food that day, we learned a lot about our host, about her family and neighborhood and ultimately about the city, almost inadvertently. Through the simple acts of rolling roti dough and folding (badly) samosas, I personally had never felt more connected in such a short period of time to a new city and at that moment a fierce love was born.
Cape Town is a city of neighborhoods, of cultures and of people. Sure Table Mountain is great and the wine is spectacular, but when (and not if) you visit, just go out into the neighborhoods and learn as much as you can. Oh, and don’t forget to stop by Faldela’s house for some of the best samosas you’ll ever taste.
For the recipes mentioned in this post, check out my Cape Malay Recipes post.