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.

 

Bright houses of the Bo-Kaap
Bright houses of the Bo-Kaap

 

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’

 

Colourful Cape Malay Quarter houses
Colourful houses in the Bo-Kaap

 

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 Hawker
Cape Malay Hawker

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!

 

Koesisters in the Bo-Kaap
Koesisters

 

Spices

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.

 

Colourful peppercorns
Colourful peppercorns

 

Architecture

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.

 

Colourful street in the Bo-Kaap
Colourful street in the Bo-Kaap

 

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.

Auwal Mosque

The Auwal Mosque was the first mosque built in South Africa in 1794 and was commissioned by an Indonesian prince.

 

Metal work in the Bo-Kaap
Metal work in the Bo-Kaap

 

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.

 

Enjoyed this post? Please Pin it!

Exploring the Cape Malay Quarter or Bo Kaap
Exploring the Cape Malay Quarter
The Cape Malay Quarter
Local guide to the Bo-Kaap
Spread the love
  • 703
    Shares

32 COMMENTS

  1. Very interesting post. It made me realize how little I know of the history of other countries. I never thought of visiting South Africa before, but your blog make me think that it would be an interesting destination.

    • It is a fascinating destination to visit. It’s not called the Rainbow Nation for nothing 🙂 SA is a cultural melting pot that carries through to the architecture, food and the people. There is so much to see that is spectacular it’s worth adding to your bucket list!

  2. That one thing I realised after reading your blog is how much of emphasis the citizens pay on the colors…everything is so colourful and I guess the peppercorns never looked so colourful. Also, can you recommend any other recipe books or websites for the Cape Malay Recipes?

  3. What an amazing place! the colours are so vibrant and I’m so intrigued by the local cuisine. I am Malaysian and my grandparents lived in the state of Malacca where the Dutch came upon us for our spices. And we speak Malay or Bahasa too. I am sure there are a lot of cross overs in our cultures.

    • I think that there probably must be. I love Malaysian food and have visited many times. I have also been to Malacca which I found to be quite charming. Thinking about it the fort and the gables on the buildings are similar to those found in Cape Town so that is obviously the Dutch influence in both countries.

  4. I loved reading this, there’s so many things I didn’t know! Like there was a Cape Malay in South Africa! I love all the colours, and the food definitely sounds interesting. A great post.

    • Thank you! I am so pleased that you enjoyed it. This area is a wonderful part of the city to explore. I love the food as well. It is subtle but has so many layers of flavours.

  5. Great post. Understanding the history of places we travel gives a great insight into the culture and people there. Would love to visit Cape Malay Quarter one day.

    • Thanks! I find the cultural differences fascinating. Too many people just take things at surface value. I like to dig a bit deeper. I always find interesting things to learn.

  6. Wow I have a special reason to visit South Africa now! The koesister sounds very much like an afternoon snack my mother’s domestic helper used to make when I was a child (if she was in a good mood).

    P.S.: Even some Malaysians today don’t know (or believe) that Malay was once a global trade language, despite being home to Malacca, the main reason why it was a global trade language! That’s the effect of colonisation for you!

    • What was your snack called? I would love to look out for it next time I am in Malaysia. I suppose each country teaches it’s own version of historical events. That’s why I love to travel. There is a whole world out there waiting to be explored. SA is a wonderful country to visit and I am sure that you will spot some similarities.

  7. I have seen this place so many times on Instagram and wondered what it was actually like. Thank you for showing more than just the pretty, colorful houses 🙂

  8. I loved reading this post. It’s really fascinating place. One thing that amused me is talking about samosas. Actually, being Indian I am very much aware of samosas.These are like part of our supper with tea. You described samosas beautifully😋

    • I LOVE samosas. They are often bought as a snack in SA and I just can get enough of them. My husband says that he is on a quest to find the perfect samosa, but I think that’s just an excuse to try some wherever we are. 🙂

  9. great piece on Bo Kaap! I was actually just mentioning it in a blog post and couldn’t find information this detailed anywhere else but here! great history on the background of the area and the food culture there

  10. I would love to visit Cape Malay Quarter! It seems so colorful and cheerful 😍😍 and that cuisine… looks yummy 😊😊 great post!

  11. What a unique city! I have never been to Cape Town myself but now I really want to! It’s always a nice way to start the day by reading something newly written from you 🙂

    • You’re so kind. Thank you! 🙂 Cape Town has so much going for it. So I guess that’s another city added you your bucket list? I hope that you get to visit one day.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here