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Traditional Cape Malay Recipes, food customs, traditions and etiquettes evolved from the intermingling and intermarriage of slaves and exiles from Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa and the European colonists at the Cape of Good Hope.
Over the centuries the Cape Malay cuisine became the original fusion food incorporating the food habits of slave masters with the exotic dishes of the enslaved. Many of the tropical ingredients for Cape Malay recipes were substituted with what was available locally, resulting in milder and more fragrant dishes. All Cape Malay recipes are halaal and no alcohol is consumed, served or used as an ingredient.
Food is the cornerstone of our religious festivals, family celebrations and social events. Cape Malay Recipes and food traditions are not only about eating but also about what we eat, how we eat, when we eat and whose food we are eating. Food tells us all we need to know about our people, our culture and how we socialize.
For example, the older generations preferred to have Cape Malay Pickled Fish after New Year to help them detox from the excesses of the festive seasons. They also had it over Easter when they went camping at the kramats in Faure because the pickled fish would not spoil without refrigeration.
Cape Malay Culture
All Cape Malays identify as Muslims even though our lineage is varied. The common home language is often a local dialect of Afrikaans, although the majority of families with school going children also speak English.
We were schooled to believe that the Afrikaans language was the language of the descendants of Dutch colonial masters, when in fact the first Afrikaans manuscripts were kitabs that were written in Arabic script in the madressas in Bo Kaap, in the early nineteenth century. What I did learn from listening to my white colleagues speak Afrikaans is that they were taught different grammar and pronunciation. I suspect that was a construct of the Afrikaner Nationalists directing the education system to ensure that we were visibly different in speech.
Although very little of the Cape Malay ancestral languages have survived, I recognised words like pisang (banana), bubur (boeber), klapper (coconut) when travelling in Malaysia and Singapore.
We learn to read and write Arabic during after-school madressa classes during childhood and adolescence but seldom enough to hold a conversation; just enough to be able to recite the Quran with proper pronunciation and perform our daily prayers. In recent years the increasing number of Arabic trained imams may have improved the quality of Arabic lessons given to young and old learners in the madressas around the city.
We have our own local customs and traditions including the customs around iftar, engagement parties, weddings and departure for hajj.
Others like Ratiep (trance-like rythmic sword dancing and piercing as a demonstration of faith) were less prevalent even during my childhood and have all but died out. I recall my father wanting to go to one of these events out of sheer curiosity when I was a child, and coming back home quite disturbed by what he had seen.
Tweede Nuwe Jaar or Second New Year was a day of celebration off work for our slave ancestors. In commemoration, the city of Cape Town hosts a Minstrel carnival (Kaapse Klopse) on 2nd January every year where the performers come out to strut their stuff in colorful outfits. Regrettably, over the years it has become an event that is characterised by disorganisation and chaos.
Along side the Minstrel event is the Cape Malay Choir Nagtroepe (Night troupes) who are the keepers of the traditional Nederlandslied (Dutch songs). The soulful stirring melodies of the folk songs imbued with the culture and suffering of generations bring tears to my eyes even now, though I haven’t heard them sing in more than a decade.
Read more: My Cape Malay DNA Ethnicity decoded
Family Celebrations and Social Events
In my grandparents and my parents generation any big social event that included a feast was called a merang. After a gathering like a gadat where the men sit on the ground and recite the Quran or oral dhikr (rememberance of Allah), food is served family style on big platters or serving dishes and guests can help themselves. The women are usually seated at impeccably decorated tables with the finest linens, crockery and glassware.
Doopmal (Naming ceremony of newborn)
After the birth of a baby the parents invite family, relatives and close friends to a naming ceremony and feast.
- Babies are dressed in sumptuous silk and lace gowns and presented to the imam on a big tray or pillow scented with perfume and rose petals.
- After the baby has been named, the guests are invited to a feast according to the family budget.
- Before departure the hosts hand out a barakat (a parting gift of cakes, biscuits and pastries and / or fruit to take home) to each guest.
- On the day when the baby finally cuts their first tooth the mother makes pancakes and milk tart or porring (baked pudding) and invites the close family to celebrate. I never knew why I until I saw a relative feeding the one tooth baby milk tart filling 🙂
Favorite Cape Malay recipes for Doopmal include:
- Traditional South African Milk tart (Melktert)
- Cape Malay Potato Pudding (Aartappel porring)
- Rose Cupcakes with white chocolate ganache
- Pecan Snowball cookies
- Cape Malay Butter Biscuits
The engagement ceremony takes place at the home of the girl’s family and the boy’s family sends a delegation of male relatives to ask the father of the girl for her hand in marriage.
- Every member of the boy’s delegation carries with them a gift of jewelry, clothing or food for the girl (and her family).
- The marriage date may be set at the time of the betrothal.
- The girl’s family will reciprocate and send back an equal number of gifts to the boy (and his family) and each member of the delegation also receives a very fancy barakat of their own.
- The barakats for an engagement are usually presented on beautiful glass or crystal plates and enclosed with cellophane and big shiny bows.
- During the engagement period the groom arranges suitable accommodation for their married life as well as all the furniture and decor for the home. In my parents and older generations this was often a room in the family home. Nowadays most young couples move into their own homes.
- The bride adds to her trousseau that her mother most likely started buying soon after she was born. This includes clothing, nightwear, undergarments, bedding, linens, household and kitchen items.
Cape Malay Weddings
A traditional Cape Malay wedding is a day long affair with a ceremony, one or two wedding receptions featuring Cape Malay recipes or modern food, and at least two bridal gowns.
- Many years ago our neighbor told me that older generations of brides had three to four wedding gowns for the same day. From my generation the brides have at least one wedding gown for the ceremony and a different one for the wedding reception.
- One feature of the bride’s wedding attire was a heavily embossed or embroidered headgear called a midowrah. These elaborate headscarves were usually purchased in Mecca from one of the Indonesian or Malay traders and have beading as well as gold or silver thread. The bridal headgear is constructed from one length of midowrah, and the bridesmaids may have a simpler version known as a misfal used for their headwear.
- The groom and his male relatives usually proceed to the mosque for the ceremony that will be concluded with the father of the bride representing her. The wedding contract is concluded when the groom asks to be married on the dowry agreed upon by the bride, and the father of the bride agrees in the presence of witnesses.
- The bride waits at a nearby reception hall or her family home for the groom and the male relatives, and signs the marriage contract in the presence of the groom, her father, the imam and witnesses.
- The men are then invited to partake of breakfast or tea with snacks, cakes and sandwiches.
- In the afternoon and evening the bride and groom may have a joint or two separate formal wedding receptions for their close family, relatives and friends. The receptions are usually scheduled so that the timing does not overlap.
- At the end of the reception, a delegation of female relatives of the groom dressed in their wedding finery will collect the bride and lead her out to be taken to her new home. In the past the ladies were usually older and had all performed hajj previously and referred to as ‘hajjis’. More often than not they are also invited to the wedding and change into their sumptuous gowns before the end of the festivity to perform their collection duty.
The groom’s family sends a special wedding meal (bruidskos) of traditional Cape Malay recipes for the bride that may include:
- Roasted bone-in leg of lamb
- Cape Malay Yellow rice
- Crayfish curry (when in season)
- Fluffy basmati rice
- Salads, desserts and cakes like Ultimate Summer Salad with strawberries; Trifle; Chocolate cream puffs (choux à la crème); Ambrosial No bake Strawberry Jelly Cheesecake Slice
Muslims are buried as soon as possible after death, and very often funerals are held within 24 hours of the death.
- The body of the deceased undergoes a ritual washing of the whole body by a close relative or family member, who may be assisted by someone trained to perform the cleansing. My parents and earlier generations referred to the funeral washer as the Toeka Manni (apparently mandi is the Malay word for bath).
- After washing the body of the deceased is wrapped and enshrouded in plain white cotton or linen cloth called the kafan.
- The close family may be allowed to view the deceased before the men take the body to the nearest mosque where they perform the congregational funeral prayer. Thereafter they proceed to the cemetery to bury the body.
- On their return to the deceased’s home the meal is served to the funeral goers. Relatives of the deceased may contribute to the expenses of hosting the funeral meal.
- Occasionally families may decline to serve cooked food and offer sandwiches and biscuits with tea to attendees.
Typical Cape Malay recipes for funeral food includes:
- Cape Malay Sugar bean bredie or curry
- Cape Malay Chicken curry
- Lamb, Peas and Carrots stew
- Tamatie bredie
- Meat akni
Religious Feasts and Festivals
Cape Malay recipes for Ramadan
The most popular traditional Cape Malay recipes served during Ramadan are for sweet and savory snacks eaten with soup or boeber at iftar (breaking the fast).
- Creamy Cape Malay Boeber
- Vegan Red Lentil soup
- Creamy Mushroom soup
- Cape Malay Pancakes (pannekoek recipe)
- Cape Malay Daltjies – Spinach and sweet corn fritters
Read more: Cape Malay Ramadhan traditions
Cape Malay recipes for Eid-ul-Fitr (Labarang)
Eid-ul-Fitr is the feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan and favorite Cape Malay recipes served on Eid include savory pies, curries, cakes and desserts.
- Cape Malay Pepper Steak Pie (Vleis Pastei)
- Finger licking Peri Peri Garlic Butter Prawns fry with savory rice
- Authentic Cape Malay Lamb Curry
- Slow Cooked Pulled Lamb shoulder
- Crumbed lamb chops
Read more: Cape Malay Eid
Cape Malay recipes for Eid-ul-Adha (Labarang Hadji)
Eid-ul-Adha is the feast of the sacrifice and celebrates the willingness of Prophet Ebrahim to sacrifice his son in obedience to Allah’s command. The sacrificial animal is distributed to the needy, relatives and one third is kept for the home. It is during this period that Muslims may perform hajj rites during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
- Cape Malay Chicken and mushroom pie (hoender pastei)
- Crayfish curry
- Chicken curry
- Roasted bone-in leg of lamb
- Crumbed chicken
The birth of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) is commemorated in many countries around the world. In Cape Town the tradition of Mawlid was celebrated in the mosques with the tradition of rampiesny. Although we never attended these Mawlid gatherings, I remember being at my Aunt’s house down the road when her in-laws dropped by on their way to such an event.
The daughter was dressed in her finest Eid or Flower girl dress and was on the way to accompany her aunt for activities at the mosque. There, girls and women cut up citrus leaves and scent them with rose and other oils then distribute it in fabric pouches. Ladies of the congregation contribute cakes and sweets for barakats that are given to all the attendees.
Hajj / Umrah
When the Muslims in Cape Town prepare for hajj or umrah, it is customary for them to greet neighbors, family, relatives and close friends a few weeks before departure and leave behind a printed card with the date of departure as well as their leaving address.
- In the week before the pilgrims depart for hajj or umrah the family, relatives and close friends visit to bid them farewell and a safe travel. Every night before leaving the family receives guests and has food, snacks and cakes on hand to serve them.
- When guests leave, it is customary to leave a slaawat (parting gift) for the pilgrims. More often than not it is a small amount of cash given surreptitiously in the hand, but it may also be something that they can use during their travel.
- As a child, I was flabbergasted at this money giving custom and was always embarrassed to be around when it was given or received. As an adult I wondered at the origin of many of our customs and realised that it was just one more way for the community to help one another.
- In the old days, when people made the journey by boat and it took months to get from Cape Town to Mecca and back, every rand given to a pilgrim made a difference. No one embarks on hajj without being financially prepared for the journey and maintaining their homes, and the slaawat is as much a blessing for the giver as it is for the receiver because it allows for small luxuries during the trip.
Popular Cape Malay Recipes to serve during the pilgrimage pre-journey week include:
- Cape Malay Sugar Bean bredie (Suiker boontjie bredie)
- Cape Malay Potato Pudding (Aartappel porring)
- Brioche Bread and Butter pudding (brood porring)
- Old Fashioned Spiced Boiled Fruit Cake
- Best Glazed Orange Bundt Cake
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