Something’s cooking in the Bo-Kaap

“You must not be afraid of the spices, they are what makes life worth living” says Zainie with a firm voice that brokers no argument. But I can see that the Swedes in our group are absolutely horrified at the 6 (generously heaped) tsp each of turmeric, cumin and masala followed by 4 tsp of coriander and fennel that Zainie is adding to our chicken curry for ten. At home, anything stronger than white flour is often measured by a curious little thing called a “spice measure”. It is equivalent to 1/5 of a teaspoon, and in many ways I think it is the perfect symbol of Swedish restraint. Apparently another Swedishness, the concept of “lagom” (not too much, and not too little) is all the hype in the UK now, but I am definitely with Zainie and the Cape Malays on this one. Anyway, I am getting off the subject.

We were on a Bo-Kaap Cooking Tour with the delightful Zainie, born and bred in the colourful Bo-Kaap. This is a traditional Cape Malay (Muslim) area, and the best place to explore their vibrant culture and interesting (although, like for all non-white South Africans, often tragic) past. To start off with, Zainie took us on a shopping spree where we familiarised ourselves with the products and spices used in the Cape Malay kitchen. Their food is, just like Bo-Kaap itself, colourful and bold but it lacks the harsh spiciness of the Indian cuisine. Apparently this is because many Cape Malays were assigned to be cooks on the ships that took them from their homes in the Dutch East Indies to become slaves in the Cape in the late 17th and early 18th century, and they were forced to make their food mild to appease the sensitive Dutch palates.


The Muslim heritage is apparent from the many mosques in the area



Atlas Trading Company is the go-to place for all things spices and equally popular with local housewives and top chefs.


Zainie guiding us through the jungle of exotic products found in the Bo-Kaap.

When we were done shopping, we went to Zainie’s home in a beautiful blue building not far from the famous Chiappini Street. Her house is one of those where you feel immediately at home. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one because during the course of our cooking class and following meal, many people came in and out to greet Zainie (and us) and to see if there was any left-overs to be had or to catch up on the latest gossip. Zainie skilfully managed to keep up the village talk while at the same time instruct us Northerners on how to use more spices than we ever though possible, to roll a perfect rooti and to mix and fry dhaltjies.


Chiappini Street, possibly the most photographed street in South Africa


Chicken curry in the making


Rolling a perfect rooti is a precise art

Eventually a bit of help arrived in the form of Zainie’s heavily pregnant daughter in-law. Like a conductor, she got us all to fold samoosas in perfect harmony (well, not really but at least she tried) moving around the kitchen with the grace of a ballerina despite a belly that looked big enough to house twins. “Ah, no” she said “it’s only one, and the doctor says there is still two weeks to go so I have plenty of time”.



Dhaltjies are little chili bites made with chickpea or pea flour and lots of lovely spices

After the class, we all sat down together in Zainie’s dining room to feast on the fruits of our labour. I could see the Swedes hesitating about the (in their minds totally over-spiced) chicken curry, but once they overcame their fears they realised that Zainie was right. It was perfect! We left with newly acquired skills, tummies full of food, a small pack of masala mix (enough for 5 in the Bo-Kaap and possibly for 50 in Sweden), and a promise to “pop in and say hello any time we were in the area”. I for one, will certainly do that. Both for the chance of meeting the lovely Zainie and her family again, and for the possibility of a freshly fried dhaltjie or two!


Image courtesy of Bo-Kaap Cooking Tours

For more information about the Bo-Kaap Cooking Tour, please refer to Zainie’s website


The delightful Zainie on her front stoep (porch)




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