After four hours by motorised canoe up the Tembling River in Central Pahang, I arrived at a small national park camp deep in the rainforest. I was travelling the length of the Malaysian Peninsula overland from south to north. The cuisine was exotic, a tomato sauce bottle was labelled ‘Cats Up’ (ketchup) and a stall sold ‘ais-krim’ (ice-cream). It was all very different from our Cape Malay table, and I ate mostly in the Chinese outlets, where you could at least have a beer.
On the riverbank one afternoon, I fell into conversation with a group of women on holiday from Kuala Lumpur. They were having a remarkably rowdy party for teetotallers sipping only durian and star-fruit juice. I hadn’t come across a single samoosa in Malaysia; did they know what it was? Yes, Sri Lankan. Breyani? Indian, from the Urdu word biryani for fried. I asked them if they perhaps knew of bredie. No, they thought it was Indian too. What of our own moussaka – bobotie? Never heard of it, but bumbu means curry in Behasa Melayu. Atjar? Yes, Malaysian; meaning relish.
Cape Malay cuisine is indeed unique. It is a magnificent, eclectic combination of numerous food cultures from which the slaves and indentured labourers of the early Cape were drawn, from Mozambique to India to Java, developed over time by local habits and the available ingredients. Breedi is in fact a Madagascan word for amaranthus plants, and any vegetables stewed from cabbages to sorrel was called breedi by the Cape slaves.
The tacky and rather drab Rooti’s Cape Malay Restaurant in the V&A Waterfront baits its trap with mediocre versions of our local novelty cuisine to catch unsuspecting tourists.
Another restaurant now firmly on the visitors’ route is one of the oldest Cape Malay restaurants, Biesmiellah, located in the historical Bo-Kaap. Every time I go there it seems, there are American NGO types braying on their cellphones. Going there was considered an adventure for white people in the bad old days, not from gangsters mind you, but because they would have to eat with their hands. Today, their objection is that it is run on halal principles, the menu declaring: ‘Alcohol is STRICTLY FORBIDDEN in this establishment’.
The Biesmiellah complex includes a butchery, kiosk, and take-away outlet, especially popular with locals on Friday nights. The decor is nonexistent and the service no-frills. The washroom is in the kitchen, opposite a battery of microwave ovens. But unpretentious does not mean inexpensive. Mains are between R70 and R80. These are accompanied by sticky rice, colour-dyed bright orange and yellow. The menu is predominantly Indian, and having sampled their Cape Malay dishes, I’d stick with the Indian. They have a special section of Kalya curries, which uses a buttermilk marinade with braised onions and spices.
In a league of its own is the Cape Malay Restaurant in the Constantia winelands which takes this cuisine to new heights. Chef Martha Williams was trained by the legendary cook and cultural fundi Cass Abrahams.
She offers a set menu – four samples of aromatic starters, soup or salad, four portions of main dishes to share, a choice of desserts followed by koeksusters and coffee. It is more than you can eat. The menu changes on a five week rotation. At R200 per person it is far cheaper than if you ate the same amount at Biesmiellah, and without the benefits of variety or quality. There the denningsvleis (R79.95) was a few thinly sliced mutton chops in a sauce over-sweet with caster sugar. Martha’s denningsvleis is succulent and intensely flavoured, matching the sweet tamarind with potent spices.
Menu 2’s other mains included a smoor fish, a perfectly pan-fried Hake fillet with tomato and cardamom; an old fashioned chicken pie in crisp pastry still piping hot in its ceramic container; a yellow dhal (lentil) curry with mung beans flavoured with herbs and yoghurt. These are accompanied with basmati rice and roti breads, sambals, delicious atchar (not the bottled aspic you get in supermarkets), Mrs Balls chutney, and a yoghurt and coriander raita. Martha is a sublime cook. This is no tourist trap. Pass the jammer lappie!
Cape Malay Kitchen, Cellars-Hohenort, 93 Brommersvlei, Constantia, Tel: 021 794 2137.
Biesmiellah, Cnr Wale and Pentz Streets, Cape Town. Tel: 021 423 0850.
Rooti’s Cape Malay Restaurant, Clocktower V&A Waterfront. Tel: 021 425 8810.