Saturday, 17 May 2014

South African Cuisine

Table Mountain at the Cape
There is no single South African cuisine. The different ethnic groups cooked according to their traditions. However, significant cross-pollination has occurred and many of South Africa's most popular dishes are hybrids of the various cuisines of our ancestors.

When the Dutch first settled at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 their job was to grow European vegetables for the ships going to the Dutch East Indies. The sailors needed fresh vegetables to prevent scurvy.

From the Dutch kitchens came the traditional hearty dishes for a cold climate: pea soups and hutspots, and sweet things like ginger biscuits and melkterts – cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves from the spice islands in the Dutch East Indies were key ingredients.

In 1688 the French Huguenots arrived, bringing their Provençal cuisine which fused with that of the Cape Dutch and enlivened it with the addition of fresh herbs and wine to their traditional casseroles. They also brought with them grape vine cuttings, from which they started the wine industry that flourishes in the Cape today.
French Provencale casserole

In the 1700's the Dutch imported slaves from their colonies in the Dutch East Indies. They came to be known as Cape Malays. Many were employed as cooks and forever altered Cape Dutch cuisine with the addition of tropical spices.
Sosaties, a Malay dish of skewered meat,
 marinated in a mixture of spices.

When the British took over the Cape Colony from the Dutch in 1815 they brought with them the British-Indian cuisine (such as "curries" and "chutneys") that they had come to enjoy during their colonization of India.

In the late 1800's the British transported indentured workers from southern India to tend the sugar-cane plantations in the Natal Colony. They brought their hot and spicy curries, using a lot of chili, coconut, tamarind, garlic and ginger. They also introduced the naan and roti breads which are first cousins to "askoek" and "pannekoek".
Curries and naan bread

Soon merchants from the northern Indian state of Gujerat migrated to Natal independently. (Among them was Mahatma Ghandi who lived in South Africa for 21 years.) With them, from the north of India, came their aromatic and complex, predominantly vegetarian cuisine.

The pioneers who trekked into the interior of the continent needed to take supplies that were light and nourishing: from them we got biltong, dry boerewors and rusks.
Dry rusks: delicious dunked in coffee!

Until the advent of the railways, “transportryers” with ox wagons took supplies to the gold fields and to the outlying districts. They perfected “potjiekos”: a slowly simmered stew of layered meat and vegetables, made in a three-legged cast iron pot over a few coals at the outspan.

All these strands make up the tapestry of our traditional cooking. Over the centuries there have been outstanding exponents of the culinary art: Miss Hildegonda Duckett, Louis Leipoldt and SJA de Villiers to name but a few.  

Miss Hildegonda Duckitt, the grande dame of Cape cooking, was a granddaughter of William Duckitt, who arrived at the Cape in 1800. She spent her early life on the farm Groote Post, baking mosbolletjies using fermented grape juice instead of yeast to make the dough rise. Her tea cakes, called oblietjies , were also a hit after she revved up an old Huguenot recipe and added cinnamon and white wine. And for children she would make tameletjies: sweets of naartjie peel and pine nuts.  For the cold farm nights on Groote Post, egg flips would be made from a bottle of Madeira, five eggs, cloves, nutmeg and the ubiquitous cinnamon.

Hilda learnt her speciality - tortoise, scalloped with breadcrumbs, butter, lemon and salt - from Abraham, a Swahili cook on the farm. The trick was to scratch the tortoise on the back until its inquisitive head popped out - and then chop it off. Tortoise, like most exotic white meat, is reported to taste like chicken.
She also had an interesting list of home remedies: here are a few from ‘Hilda’s Diary of a Cape Housekeeper’, published 1902:  

Ø  Cure for Toothache. – Mix 60 grains cocaine, 1 teaspoonful tincture of opium, and bottle.  A tiny piece of cotton-wool steeped in this and put in the cavity of the aching tooth will give instant relief.  (I bet it will!)

Ø  Overdose of Laudanum, etc. -  In case of an overdose of laudanum or opium or alcohol, immediately administer an emetic of mustard-and-water, and above all keep the patient awake and in motion, slapping him with wet towels and trotting him up and down the room till a doctor can attend.

Ø  Jaundice  -  The yellow flowers of the wild hemp, known at the Cape as “Dacha”, Cannabis sativa (the leaves of which plant used to be dried and smoked by the natives), made into a tea and taken three times a day, is most efficacious. (Now that has to be better than Rooibos!)

"No, really, Sergeant, trust me, the cocaine, the opium and the dagga are for medicinal purposes only!"
 Those were the days!!

The celebrated Afrikaans poet C Louis Leipoldt (1880-1947) wrote some fascinating and engaging cookery books. They contained not just recipes, but anecdotes and musings of this great writer who was also a bushveld doctor, medical specialist, botanist, chef and all-round epicurean.

SJA de Villiers is South Africa's answer to Mrs Beeton. She will always be remembered for her definitive Kook en Geniet, which first saw the light in 1951 and is to be found in the kitchen of every South African housewife. The first English edition, Cook and Enjoy It, appeared in 1961. Nearly a million copies of the two editions had been sold by the turn of the century.


No comments: