Cape Malay cookbook highlights traditional recipes

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

When Cape Town cookbook author Salwaa Smith moved to the United Kingdom 14 years ago she made sure her family would not forget the tastes of home.

Surrounded by cuisine from around the world in the UK, Smith cooked all the traditional Cape Malay stews and staples she grew up with in Surrey Estate suburb. She relied on her trustworthy typed-up a list of recipes from home.

Three years ago those recipes gained wider appreciation when Smith started the Cape Malay & Other Delights page on Facebook.

Cape Malay cookbook author Salwaa Smith. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

Cape Malay cookbook author Salwaa Smith. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

This Facebook page currently has close on 100,000 subscribers, many of whom encouraged Smith to publish a book of recipes.

Earlier this month, Smith launched her self-published Cape Malay & Other Delights Cookbook in Cape Town, after an initial UK launch.

Smith says her desire to “create something” started two decades ago already when she “typed up all the recipes”.

“When we moved to the UK I had more time and did research online about Cape Malay cooking. I became motivated to do this,” says Smith.

Recipes for roti and other types of bread are included in the Cape Malay cookbook. Picture Supplied

Recipes for roti and other types of bread are included in the Cape Malay cookbook. Picture Supplied

“I worked for the Birmingham city council and went on a women’s empowerment course. One of the questions we were asked was, ‘What do you want to do in five years time?’ And I realised I still want to do the book.”

Smith writes in her book that Cape Malay cooking is “characterised by the liberal intermingling of spices and the influence of Indian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Dutch and French cuisines”.

“Bobotie is a Cape Malay dish which came with slaves who arrived from Java and various Indonesian islands in 1658 and being slaves, the Malays often ended up in the Dutch kitchens and their influence remains apparent in dishes such as bobotie,” she writes.

Slave history scholar Mogamat Kamedien meanwhile writes in Smith’s book that the author is “promoting and preserving vanishing heritage food practices and ordinary household meals beyond the celebratory food or ceremonial dishes”.

Favourite appetizers on the Cape Malay menu include samoosas, spring rolls and pies. Picture Supplied

Favourite appetizers on the Cape Malay menu include samoosas, spring rolls and pies. Picture Supplied

At the heart of Smith’s effort seems to be a desire for traditional Cape Malay food to remain on dinner tables.

“All over the world people value their own traditions. We should be proud of our Cape Malay cooking style because it is unique to Cape Town,” says Smith.

“From Facebook I saw that people are looking for easy ways of cooking. They also buy food instead of cooking. A lot of people don’t cook the more traditional meals anymore, but only for certain occasions.

“I am trying to make people aware again of traditional recipes. When they see these recipes they appreciate it because their grandmothers used to make this food and they haven’t had it in a long time. So now they are cooking it again.”

Smith adds: “It’s important to preserve these recipes as locals have moved all over the world. I wanted to preserve our Cape Malay way of cooking.

Traditional Cape Malay stews are perfect for large family gatherings. Picture Supplied

Traditional Cape Malay stews are perfect for large family gatherings. Picture Supplied

“I wanted to preserve this and teach my children also how to cook like this.”

Smith says people who did not grow up with Cape Malay cooking are also using her recipes.

Her Facebook fans from around the world send her messages and pictures of the dishes they have made using her recipes, which she also publishes on the page.

Smith says she has seen again and again how food brings people from all walks of life together.

“My mother was a good example for us. At Easter time she would make raisin buns and send it to all the neighbours in our road. At Christmas time she would make a tart and send it to the neighbours as well,” says Smith.

“We learned not to discriminate. And I try to inculcate that in my Facebook page as well. Cooking is for all cultures, for everyone.

“People enjoy food. It makes them happy. We learn about each other’s cultures through food.”

She adds: “Cape Malay cooking is for everybody. It’s not spicy, but flavourful and subtle. It’s very rich because we use a variety of different spices.”

In her book, Smith has included an overview of the spices and herbs used “abundantly” in Cape Malay cooking.

These include atchar masala, aniseed, breyani masala (a blend of spices), cloves, curry leaves, cardamom and barishap (the Cape Malay name for fennel).

The book includes recipes for appetizers, soups, main meals, stews, bread and roti, atchars and cakes.

Smith has included some “contemporary recipes as people’s food habits change”.

“The contemporary recipes complement Cape Malay cooking. It’s more or less the same. Some ingredients or sauces are different,” she says.

“For example, I’ve added chopped spinach to the Cape Malay chicken curry. I learned that from my son-in-law who is Pakistani.

“I also added chocolate brownies, which is contemporary, to the traditional deserts like potato pudding with stewed fruit.”

Smith has also created a mobile application that can be downloaded from iTunes. Information about her book and other recipes are found on her Facebook page Cape Malay Cooking & Other Delights.


The Dutch colonised portions of South East Asia and introduced slavery to the Cape in the mid-1600s.

People who opposed colonisation were taken as political prisoners or shipped to exile at the Cape as slaves.

A large majority of those brought to the Cape were Muslims, captured and sent into exile from colonies such as Madagascar, India, Ceylon and the Dutch East Indies (known as Indonesia today).

Other immigrants were from Philippines, Japan, Macau, Malacca, West Indies, Brazil and possibly New Guinea.

The main group of African immigrant’s came from East Africa, Madagascar and West Africa. Many of these people were skilled artisans, such as silversmiths, milliners, cobblers, singers, masons and tailors.

This group came to be known collectively as Cape Malay, despite their diverse origins as far afield as East Africa and Malaysia.

The term Cape Malay was in reference mainly to the slaves who were Muslim and spoke Melayu, a language from present-day Indonesia, based in the Cape.

Under apartheid, this term was used as an identity classification for Muslim coloureds. As apartheid waned, coloureds denounced this problematic slave definition in preference of being labeled South African Muslims.

While the term Cape Malay remains contested, many still use it to refer to Cape Town’s Muslim population.

Some Melayu words are still used in Cape Town, a modern-day testimony to ancestral links to South East Asia. Traditional tastes and cooking style can be traced to these ancestors too.



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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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