Among the multi-coloured houses in Wale Street, we’re looking for one painted blue. From the kitchen of this house in Cape Town’s Bo-kaap district, Gamidah Jacobs runs cooking classes on the food of her people. On this warm day in January 2013, she is wearing a sleeveless dress whose colours are as vivid as the exterior of her house; a blue scarf wound loosely around her head makes a half-hearted attempt to conceal her hair. For the next three hours, she will lead us through a few Cape Malay favourites. I grew up with all of them.
The handful of blocks wedged between Cape Town’s central business district and the upper slopes of Signal Hill are defined by narrow streets and buildings that borrow from Dutch and Georgian architecture; they form the largest intact collection of buildings in South Africa dating from the early 1700s. The people who live there are descended from a mix of Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Indians and Malaysians, brought by force to the Cape as skilled labour by the Dutch-East India Company in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The area formerly known as the Malay Quarter became the traditional home of Cape Town’s Muslim population, surviving the push of apartheid that saw so many communities shunted off to other parts of the city.
A large east-facing sash window lets light into the kitchen. Implements and ingredients have been set up on the counter top next to twin sinks. A few weeks ago, I’d made a long-distance request for samoosas to be on the list of dishes. If there is anything I miss about living abroad – apart from friends and family – it is the Cape samoosa: a triangle of crisp fried pastry stuffed with spiced chicken, meat or vegetable filling. Today we will learn how to make one of the most important – and difficult – components of this dish: the pastry.
I came by my first real job the hard way. Having refused my mother’s offer to use ‘influence’ at the Cape Town City Council, I soon discovered what it was like to find work in an economic downturn. Once the possibilities ran out I looked for diversions, one of which was scouring the peninsula for bargains. My most memorable acquisition was a hand-operated coffee grinder I’d picked up at an antique shop in Muizenberg; it was a beautiful piece – all cast iron and curves – but its blades had seen better days. When Mom offered me relief work at one of Dad’s consulting rooms, I didn’t resist. For ten weeks, I fielded calls, mixed up medicines and batched pills; in between, I made tea and small talk with patients. It was the first – and last – time the practice employed an office assistant with a master’s degree in town planning.
In the interim, I’d become aware of a three-month opportunity at the Divisional Council of the Cape. The office was in Wale Street, a couple of blocks down the hill from the Malay Quarter, and a twenty-minute walk from our Tamboers Kloof apartment. The pay was the equivalent of one-twentieth of what salaried town planners were starting on, but it was a foot in the door. Every week I collected my $42.50 in a sealed envelope, bank notes stapled to the inside and coins jingling at the bottom. Later on a permanent position became available and I worked there until we left South Africa in early 1981.
One of the staff, Maggie – short for Magodien – offered to give me his recipe for a traditional Cape Malay curry. ‘You make it from scratch,’ he said, ‘and you can get all the spices at Atlas Trading Company.’
This family-owned business has been at 104 Wale Street since 1946. Around the time that it opened its doors, a group of prominent citizens had started to campaign for the protection of the Malay Quarter. Fifteen houses were restored with support from the Historical Monuments Commission and the City Council; in an odd twist the latter, which had bought up most of the land in the area, opposed preserving the district as a whole. It was only after pressure from the Commission and public that the Council changed its mind and by the late 1970’s, restoration was well under way.
With Maggie’s recipe in my hand, I walked up to Atlas Trading Company in my lunch hour. I picked up raw ginger and fresh chillies, spices and garlic. That night I measured out quantities for two people. I chopped, mixed, stirred and watched. As the curry bubbled away, aromas filled our small kitchen.
The first mouthful was an explosion of flavours, the spices combining with the meat to produce a taste sensation that no ready-mix curry could replicate. The second and third mouthfuls were as sublime. By the fourth, tears were streaming down our faces and by the fifth we could take no more. Yogurt and coconut did nothing to soothe our seared mouths and water only made things worse.
A few months later, I asked Maggie if he always ate such spicy food. He laughed. ‘Yes, I do,’ he said. He also admitted to a stomach ulcer. I played around with the recipe until I was satisfied with the balance between flavour and heat. I still use it today, at around one-third of its original strength.
Mix two cups of plain flour with a pinch of salt and enough water to make a pliable dough. Divided it into eight to ten portions the size of a tennis ball. Roll each one flat to the size of a large side plate. Sprinkle with oil and dust with a bit of flour, then cover it with the next ball that has been rolled flat. Repeat the process until all the balls have been used up, making sure that there is no overlapping. Roll the stack into a square the thickness of a pancake, turn and pull it into an oblong and roll to about 30 cm by 15 Place on a non-stick baking sheet – do not grease it – and bake at 180C for two minutes on either side. Remove from the oven and separate the sheets while still hot. Cut into strips about two fingers in width. Take a strip and fold one end over until it forms a pocket. Insert the filling of your choice into the pocket and continue folding until you reach the other end. Secure the ends with a little flour mixed with water, repeat with the remaining strips and filling, and deep fry the samoosas until golden.