Lucky Peach | The Woman Preserving South African Food Traditions

At sixty-five, Zainie Misbach is a wiry ball of energy, flitting from one recipe to the next as her pupils try to keep up. I’ve arrived in her home kitchen, tucked away on a quiet street in Cape Town’s colorful Bo-Kaap neighborhood, along with several other young women, to learn how to make my kitchen sing with the fragrant spices of Cape Malay cooking—a culinary tradition that fuses Indian, Indonesian, and African flavors.

In many ways, a lesson in Cape Malay cooking is also a lesson in racial politics, a topic that is hard to escape in South Africa. Dishes of south Indo-Asian origins came to South Africa with the enslaved workers that the Dutch East India Company brought beginning in the 1600s. During apartheid, the official segregation of whites and nonwhites, which was the law from the 1940s until the early 90s, the racial and cultural diversity that had come to define South Africa was actively suppressed. Cape Malay dishes disappeared from popular culture; no longer offered up by the street vendors who were once on every corner, the Cape Malay tradition was kept alive only in the private kitchens of home cooks, like Zainie’s grandmother and mother.

Today she’s teaching us how to make chicken curry (also known as bunny chow, and often served by locals in a hollowed-out loaf of white bread), crispy samoosas, daaltjies (airy, golden balls of dough with a hint of swiss chard thrown in for good measure), and flaky stacks of rooti.

Our first lesson of the day is mixing the spices for our chicken curry. Every self-respecting Cape Malay cook equips her kitchen with a stainless steel spice tray from which she mixes her masala curry. Zainie is no exception. She deftly spoons ground coriander, cumin, fennel, turmeric for color, and red masala into an empty cup, blending them together to yield a rich, rust-colored powder. For a moment, the idea of assembling my own masala at home seems within reach.

Zainie’s family first arrived on the Western Cape from Indonesia nearly three hundred years ago. After emancipation in 1834, they settled with other former slaves at the foot of Signal Hill that became known as the Malay Quarter (today’s Bo-Kaap). She learned to cook from her grandmother, who noted when recipes had been adapted to please the Dutch (easy on the chili powder) or modified based on local ingredients (for example, substituting dried apricots for tamarind).

In 1984, Zainie opened Biesmiellah, South Africa’s first Cape Malay restaurant. “Culture and history come through food,” Zainie said. “I opened Biesmiellah for young people to remember these meals.” Though she’s gone on to operate several restaurants since then (all while raising four children as a single mother), Biesmiellah allowed her to stake a claim in the ground and make a political statement: that Cape Malay cuisine is as much a part of South Africa’s heritage as game meat and the township braai (that’s Afrikaans for barbecue).   

At this point in our lesson, the chicken curry is quietly simmering on the stovetop and we’ve moved on to the samoosas. Each of us takes a long ribbon of phyllo dough and, with our eyes on the teacher, folds the strip into several triangles until we’ve managed to construct a small origami cup that is just the right size to accommodate a forkful of minced beef. Then we seal our triangles with one final fold and a dab of flour paste and stand back to admire our handiwork—an entire baking sheet filled with samoosas ready to fry in oil—as Zainie inspects our folds, commenting on specimens where the paste is too thick or the folds too loose.

While several students are busy mastering the art of flipping rooti in a skillet, Zainie recalls the Cape Town of her youth. She laughs as she remembers being chased for asking passersby to sign a petition, her first foray into political activism. Then at seventeen, she stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other Coloureds (the legal category for people of mixed-race or Asian origins) in front of the bulldozers sent to raze District Six.

For more than three decades she has championed the revival of Cape Malay food as South Africa’s national cuisine. She was born and raised in Bo-Kaap and still resides there, and she has continued her activism by petitioning against the city’s rezoning efforts and the rising rents as a result of gentrification. Her special talent for feeding people extends beyond the tourists who come to her kitchen and she hands out meals and blankets to the neighborhood’s homeless population when she can.

Cesar Chavez once said, “The people who give you their food, give you their heart.” Sitting down to a meal in Zainie’s Bo-Kaap kitchen is experiencing the heart and soul of Cape Town through a bite of crispy, spicy goodness. Your stomach will leave smiling.