The settlement history of Cape Town goes back to 1652 when Jan van Riebeeck first sailed into Table Bay on behalf of the Dutch East India Company to set up a post at the bay to grow fruits and vegetables, barter for livestock with the local tribes, and to establish a ship repair facility. As the settlement grew, the first slaves were introduced in 1658 (survivors of an American slave ship which wrecked returning from Madagascar). The British took over the Cape following the Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806 with the help of a “Malay corps’ of slaves who were promised land to build a mosque, and later a Muslim burial ground.
When the slaves were emancipated in 1834 (they were to then be apprentices to their former masters for four years), they became free to make a living. The Bo-Kaap area was expanded with new houses built for the new working class and immigrants. Under Apartheid, the neighborhood was formally created as residences for the Cape Malay Muslims in 1950.
During the 1970s there was considerable restoration of the homes in Bo-Kaap and the Malay Quarter name was changed to “Bo-Kaap” by popular majority vote.
After touring the Bo-Kaap area, we spent the morning exploring some of downtown Capetown and came across some beautiful Zulu art at a local gallery.
When it came time for lunch, we convinced our guide to return to Bo-Kaap so we could eat some of the Cape Malay cuisine. As seen in the photograph of the restaurant, below, the local homes were reflected in the restaurant’s front windows.
The chef/owner of the restaurant was one of many local Malay chefs whose story and recipes were compiled in an excellent history/recipe cookbook of the neighborhood, Bo-Kaap Kitchen. We were very happy to get a recipe for one of the area’s signature dishes, “bobotie”, made of spicy beef mince with an egg topping — a recipe based on a similar Indonesian dish and perfected by the Cape Malays. It is usually served with yellow rice scattered with flaked almonds. Delicious!
The introduction of the cookbook has a good explanation of the development of the local Bo-Kaap cuisine: “The Cape has its very origins in food. The purpose people settled here to begin with was to grow produce, keep livestock and provide fresh water (and other services) to passing ships. From the earliest days of settlement at the Cape, in the 1650s, slaves were brought in from many lands by the Dutch East India Company, along with cargoes of exotic spices. In the kitchens of the early farms, female slaves were taught to prepare what their European masters liked — foods from Holland, Germany, France, and Britain. Their knowledge of their own culture’s cooking and flair for exotic flavour combinations soon resulted in the creation of new dishes — early fusion food, if you will.
“Despite being called ‘Cape Malays’, these people came from places as wide-ranging as Madagascar, East Africa, North Africa, Yemen, India, Indonesia and Malaysia — each with their own rich traditions, culinary and otherwise…
“It became a truism to talk about the Cape Malay sense of community and sharing, yet to experience it in person, to witness it in person, and to taste the food offered and to listen to the stories told, leaves a permanent and somewhat nostalgic impression. As Shireen Narkedien, a community guide and one of the cooks included in this book, says of the area’s heritage: ‘It’s interesting, it’s worth knowing and worth holding on to. It’s a disappearing culture and it has good values. There are lots of good things here that I don’t want to disappear, to do with the food, architecture, traditions.'”
We hope this blog helps a little to keep Bo-Kaap “alive”. If you visit Cape Town, be sure to visit the neighborhood and eat there in one of the Cape Malay restaurants.