shows various Cape Malay Cuisine dishes

Unique Food Culture of Cape Malay Cuisine

Most people know where South Africa is but what they do not know is that its painful legacy has created a unique food culture, one of them being the Cape Malay Cuisine. Cape Malay Cuisine was born from slavery and forged during the isolation of Apartheid. It is found only in South Africa, and only in one province.

Food culture is an important way to examine any country’s heritage as it gives us a window into that culture’s past. Food provides a way for communities to share their traditions with their families and outsiders. In many instances, food is not only part of a culture, but it can define a culture.

This exotic cuisine is a style of food steeped in history and preserved through ongoing tradition.  As a result, Cape Malay cuisine tells a story of enslavement, adaptation, overcoming adversity and the triumph of the human spirit. The one thing that has not changed over time is that it feeds not only the body but also the soul of its people.

Cape Malay Cuisine: Bo-Kaap
The Bo-Kaap, home of Cape Malay Cuisine

Cape Malay History

In the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company arrived in South Africa with slaves from as far afield as Brazil, Brunei, Sri Lanka and Japan. However, most of the slaves were from Indonesia, Malaysia and India. These slaves were subjected to hard, cruel lives but nonetheless tried to make the best of it.

The earliest members of the Cape Malay community were enslaved Javanese from Indonesia. Malay was the lingua franca of the Indonesian islands at that time and the language was widely spoken in the Cape during the 17th century. Subsequently, these Indonesian Muslims came to be known as Cape Malay. They established mosques and created a unique food culture that does not exist outside the borders of South Africa.

As the community evolved, they stopped speaking Malay, and now largely speak Afrikaans or, in some cases, English. The term Cape Malay has come to include all descendants of enslaved and free Muslims from different parts of the world who lived at the Cape during Dutch and British rule. Many have kept their traditions from the early days. It has become a rich, complex culture that is reflected in Cape Malay cuisine.

Cape Malay Cuisine is rooted in Islamic practices
Cape Malay cuisine is rooted in Islamic practices

The Birth Of Cape Malay Cuisine

Much of the Cape Malay cuisine is rooted in the Islamic way of cooking. This cooking method includes a lot of spices and the use of hands to eat. Many ingredients were left behind in their home countries and the Cape Malay had to modify their dishes. New dishes were invented with the spices and meats that were available to them. By adding a little bit of this and a little bit of that to recreate flavours, Cape Malay cuisine was born.

Furthermore, Cape Malay women did not only feed their families at home. Many of these women were slaves to Dutch households and they had to cook for their masters. The Dutch had much milder tastes, therefore they had to adapt their spicy ancestral dishes so that they could also eat them. As a result, spicy dishes were toned down by substituting other spices and methods. One of the ways was to replace chilli powder with paprika.

Cape Malay cuisine is one of the major parts of this minority people’s identity. Today, it remains an important part of the Western Cape’s culture and heritage, especially among the Muslim population of Cape Town.

Cape Malay Dishes

Cape Malay cuisine had varied roots and traditional recipes that were passed down from generation to generation. The Bo Kaap in Cape Town specialise in these dishes.

Pickled Fish

Pickled fish (also known as ingelegde vis or Kaapse kerrievis) is a quintessential dish of the Cape Malay people. It was traditionally a tasty way for the Cape Malay community to make the most of an abundance of fish during the summer months by preserving the fish. This method allowed them to keep the fish for an extended period of time. They added the spices from their homeland to preserve the fish and add flavour.

Cape Malay Cuisine: pickled fish
Cape Malay pickled fish

Cape Malay Pickled Fish is pan-fried lightly spiced white fish steeped in a sweet and sour marinade of crunchy onions, vinegar, sugar and dry roasted whole and ground spices. Many cooks add fish masala powder. This spicy dish transcends the Muslim faith and is a firm favourite of Christian South Africans who do not believe in cooking over Easter. It is now served nationally over Easter in many households.


Denningvleis comes from the Javanese word “dendeng”, which is water buffalo meat. In the Cape, however, mutton or lamb is used. This lamb dish is one of the oldest recorded recipes in South African cuisine.

It is prepared with a combination of onions, garlic, tamarind, allspice, bay leaves, cloves and nutmeg. As little water as possible is used to braise the meat slowly. Even though tamarind was originally used in preparing this dish, it was adapted by the slaves and slowly left out. Cloves, nutmeg and vinegar now provide the strong and subtle, sweet and sour flavours all at once.

Denningvleis is served with a side of rice and roasted vegetables. In the Cape Malay community, this dish is cooked to feed and unite families.

Cape Malay Cuisine: denningvleis
Denningvleis served on yellow rice


A bredie (stew) is a very substantial dish. This word is of Malaysian origin and this form of cooking was also brought to the Cape by the slaves. The ingredients consist of meat and vegetables which are stewed for a long time.

Legend has it that it was born from the offcuts and vegetable donations made by slave owners to the slaves. They had to find a way to cook and make it both plentiful and tasty and the bredie was born. Cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and chillies were typically used for these stews. Tomato bredie, cabbage bredie and green bean bredie were very popular.

Waterblommetjie bredie is indigenous to the Bo Kaap and a uniquely South African culinary experience. “Waterblommetjies” are found in shallow dams and glens of the Boland region in the Cape from about May to November. It is typically combined with the slightly tangy taste of sorrel and the full-bodied flavour of mutton. It is then made into a stew with a fine balance between salt, savoury and sour tastes.

Water Lilly stew is a part of Cape Malay cuisine
South Africa’s famous “waterblommetjie” (water lilly)


Bobotie (pronounced ba-bo-tea) is a fragrant, mildly spiced curry made topped with a rich and savoury custard and it is served with yellow rice. The curry powder and the bay leaves, which were brought from the East, affect the flavour of this dish the most. It is a popular fixture on restaurant menus throughout the country. It also features on international cooking sites such as the BBC and was named “a hot contender for South Africa’s national dish”.

The first recorded recipe for this dish was in a Dutch cookbook in 1609. This dish was then introduced to South Africa and the Cape Malay community adopted it. They named it Bobotie after their own Bobotok or Bobotu. From there, the Afrikaners adopted this dish and took it with them when they left the Cape Colony.

Cape Malay Cuisine: bobotie
Traditional Bobotie topped with bay leaves

Yellow Rice

Rice is a popular side dish in many cultures in different forms. Cape Malay yellow rice (geelrys) is an easy and colourful way to brighten up plain rice. It is a classic side to bobotie but works with many other dishes too.

Unlike Persian rice dishes with a similar colour that use saffron, this is coloured yellow from turmeric. Raisins are also added, which gives it a sweet surprise. Some versions also add cinnamon.

Cape Malay Cuisine: yellow rice
Fragrant yellow Cape Malay rice


Biryani (mixed rice which is pronounced breyani) is a popular dish at large functions such as weddings. This is because it can feed a lot of people. In the Cape Malay cuisine, a variation of biryani uses lentils as a key ingredient in the dish along with meat (usually beef, chicken, seafood or vegetables). The dish is made by cooking rice and legumes together and meat and gravy separately, then mixing it.

Cape Malay Cuisine: fish Biryani
Cape Malay fish biryani

Cape Malay Curry

The main difference between Cape Malay curry and Indian curry is how it’s seasoned. The Cape Malay version can best be described as fragrant. Capsicum’s heat is kept low, with flavours of cinnamon, cardamom and clove taking centre stage. Fruit and nuts are often added, as well as sweet fruit chutney and a side of sambals.

Cape Malay Cuisine: chicken curry with stewed fruits
Cape Malay chicken curry with stewed fruits


In Cape Malay cuisine, curries are served with rotis. Rotis (pronounced rooties) are particularly important in Cape Malay cuisine. Rice is a staple as a side dish for the stews rotis are served with curries. It is used to lap up curry using the hands. Whereas an Indian roti is basically made with hot water, the roti in the cape is made with butter, flour and water. It is layered, and butter gets spread on each side, then it is allowed to rest. So, the Cape Malay roti is much more layered compared to the Indian one.

Cape Malay rotis
Flaky Cape Malay rotis


Sambals are much like salsa. It consists of grated vegetables or fruit seasoned with sugar, salt, chillies and vinegar. The sambal is best after all the juices are allowed to meld in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. It is served with some dishes to spice them up.

Cape Malay Cuisine: sambals
Sambals are added to Cape Malay cuisine to spice dishes up.


Sosaties are a good example of the Cape Malay influence on South Africa’s cuisine. The word sosatie comes from the Indonesian words sesate (skewered meat) and sate (spicy sauce). They are made using small pieces of lamb threaded on thin wooden skewers, with small cubes of bacon in between. Unlike kebabs, sosaties are marinated in a curry marinade for up to two days. It is a popular delicacy at most South African braais (barbecues).

Cape Malay cuisine includes meat and vegetables on a stick, cooked over an open fire.
Sosaties are another great hit in the Cape Malay kitchen

Cape Malay Desserts

Dessert plays a prominent part in Cape Malay cuisine. There are several new additions to Cape Malay desserts. However, there are two that go back right to the beginnings of Cape Malay cuisine: the koesister and boeber.


The koeksister (cake sister) is claimed by two different cultures of South Africa, the Cape Malay and the Afrikaner community. The recipes have different origins as one is of Scandinavian origin and the other from the East. The Cape Malay koeksister is a doughnut-like confectionary that is deep-fried. It is steeped in sugary syrup and dusted with coconut, a key ingredient in Cape Malay cuisine.

Koeksisters are pre-ordered from neighbourhood cooks for Sunday mornings in Cape Malay communities to have with their coffee. This is an important time for bringing families together and a sweet treat for the children.

Cape Malay Cuisine: koeksisters
Traditional Cape Malay koeksisters with coconut


Boeber is a traditional sweet milk drink made with vermicelli, sago and sugar, and flavoured with cardamom, cinnamon and rose water. This drink is traditionally served during Ramadan and Eid but is also available at other times of the year.

Boeber is a pudding made with sago and rosewater


A popular and delicious Cape Malay drink is falooda; it’s a sweet rose-flavoured milkshake topped with ice cream and softened basil seeds.

Cape Malay Cuisine: Falooda
Falooda milkshake

Bismallah and Terima Kasih

Several of the phrases used by the Cape Malay people during dinner are also indigenous to this region. Many Arab and Indonesian loan words and phrases are used during meals in Cape Town because of their religious teachings. In original Arabic, people say Bismillah before eating. In the Cape Malay language, it has been adapted to Biesmiellah. There is even a restaurant in Bo Kaap that carries this name.

No meal is complete without thanking the host. While shukran means thank you, trama kasie is a term for deep gratefulness. Nowhere else in this world would you find someone saying trama kasie. In fact, it is derived from the Indonesian word Terima Kasih. It has a beautiful meaning. The literal meaning of terima is “I accept” and kasih means“affection”, so terimah kasih means “I accept your affection”.

Cape Malay Cuisine: A Cape Malay woman serving dinner
A Cape Malay woman serving dinner

Cultural Significance of Cape Malay Cuisine in Anthropology

Over time, Cape Malay cuisine has influenced various other foods throughout the country. Cape Malay cuisine has the ability to send anyone on a journey through the past. Every aroma tells a story, every bite is a window to another time.

As a result, it brings together several backgrounds and allows for individual creativity depending on the heritage of the cook. Its spices, flavours and unique dishes have crossed over into the mainstream in both South Africa and abroad.

Due to this unique quality, it embodies the multiculturalism that South Africa stands for. This makes it an important part of South Africa’s culture.

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