The Cape Malay Quarter, or Bo-Kaap as it is locally known, is nestled at the foot of Signal Hill, above the city. I spent a wonderful morning soaking up the atmosphere strolling through the colourful streets a few days ago.
For those of you who don’t know, I was born and grew up in Cape Town. Over the years I have regularly popped into the Bo-Kaap for delicious meals and to buy the freshest spices in town. Time has changed it and like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, it has developed into a unique area that has to be seen and enjoyed. The pastel houses of my childhood are gone and in its place, the rainbow coloured streets make a statement that cannot be ignored.
The Cape Malay Quarter and its many names
Development started in the area in the 1760’s. Initially, it was known as Waalendorp. Then it became Slamse Buurt or the Malay Quarter. It is also referred to as Schotshekloof which is still used today and this name is found on many maps. Locally it is most often called the Bo-Kaap, its Afrikaans name, which translated means ‘Above the Cape’
The Cape Malays
The Cape Malays are the only group of their kind in the world. The Cape was discovered and colonised by the Dutch in 1652. Within weeks of the settlement being established, Jan van Riebeeck requested slaves to help establish a refreshment station at the Cape.
The earliest slaves to arrive at the Cape were Javanese followed by slaves from the Dutch East Indies and some from India. They included political dissidents and Muslim religious leaders who opposed Dutch rule in what we now call Indonesia. The first of these slaves arrived in 1654. They all spoke Malay which was an important trading language at the time.
A common language and religion bound them together and their culture has endured for centuries. A local version of kitchen Dutch soon developed and this was the origin of Afrikaans a language that is widely spoken throughout South Africa.
Cape Malay Cuisine
Walking through the Bo- Kaap at around 11 am the aromas of delicious food wafted through doors and opened windows. I love the Cape Malay food. It is subtly spiced with an explosion of exotic flavours but without the searing heat of chillies. That is not to say that you can’t find hot food, but the heat will never set your mouth on fire.
One of my favourite recipe books is called The Cape Malay Cookbook by Faldela Williams who passed away in 2014. It has been my go to book ever since it was published in 1988. Its pages are all yellowed and splattered with memories of many meals but wherever I am in the world I use this book as a reminder of the delicious food of the Bo –Kaap. If you want to try out a recipe to see what I am talking about YouTube has a clip of her cooking one of her dishes.
Another of my favourite spots is Biesmiellah Restaurant. If you don’t have the time for a sit-down meal, then grab a snack from the take away next to the restaurant. I had some of the best samosas I have eaten in ages as I walked through the streets munching contentedly.
If there are any koesisters be sure to try them as well. They are a bit like a doughnut, as light as air, spice and syrup infused and dusted with coconut. It’s usual to eat them on a Sunday, but you can find them around on most days. Strangely enough, mashed potato is the main ingredient, but don’t be put off by this, they are divine!
I have already mentioned that I shop in the Cape Malay Quarter for my spices and this trip was no exception. I made my way to my favourite spice shop, Atlas Trading. I always stock up on kilos of pepper amongst other things. It might sound a bit excessive, but my husband loves pepper sauce which I probably make about once a week!
Over the years the shop has changed. It used to be a bit like an Aladdin’s cave, with a wooden counter and bulk spice everywhere. It always felt a bit like a souk to me, but a few years ago it moved and became more modern. I think that it lost its charm, but I guess that you have to move with the times. It still has great prices and a fabulous selection.
Traditionally the houses were about 6 metres wide and an L shape with a small garden in the back. A unique feature of these houses is the stoep (front porch) that is elevated above the road and finished with a hard brick that came from the Netherlands. The metal hinges, brass door handles, locks, iron for the railings and bolts also came from the Netherlands while the glass for the windows came from Europe.
The houses were originally built for the slaves who came to the Cape. They are a mixture of Cape Dutch and Georgian styles. Most of the houses are semi-detached, but there are some scattered free-standing houses. Initially, all the houses were white because they were rented to slaves. Once slaves were allowed to buy properties the houses were painted brightly as an expression of their newfound freedom.
Other things to do
Free Walking Tour
Twice a day there are free walking tours that start at Motherland Coffee Company in the Mandela Rhodes building on the corner of Wale and St. Georges Street.
Bo- Kaap Museum
This small museum is set up as a house of a prosperous Cape Malay family from the 19th century. It is part of the South African Cultural History Museum.
The Auwal Mosque was the first mosque built in South Africa in 1794 and was commissioned by an Indonesian prince.
The cobbled streets, the bright colours that pop against the grey mountain, the delicious food and the friendly people will win a special place in your heart. It’s an extraordinary place, like no other so if you are heading to Cape Town be sure to visit the Bo-Kaap.
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