The Idiot’s Guide to Curry, Part 3: Cape Curries
There are times when you need to do something but you dread it, so you leave it & leave it and never get round to doing it; in the English language, it’s called procrastination. I’m not usually a procrastinator but this particular subject has seen me procrastinating in a big way, mainly because I’m negating popular South African beliefs which never goes down well: despite popular belief, the first curries made in the Cape weren’t created by oriental slaves when they first arrived in South Africa.
Since it’s impossible to understand this type of curry without understanding it’s origin, lets get that out of the way first – the culinary tradition of the Cape starts in Holland because, like it or not, the Dutch were here before the slaves (they brought the slaves here from Java & Madagascar shortly after they arrived but they certainly didn’t give the slaves carte blanche in the kitchen – on the contrary); the English were also involved in the culinary history the Brits got the Cape on plate when the Dutch (in Holland) were losing the war with the French & they ran to England for protection; in exchange, the Brits got the Cape despite the fact that the people who were living at the Cape were no longer really Dutch but a South African mixed race. To get to the bottom of the curry question there are some books that need to be read first because your local magazine just won’t do.
BOOKS YOU NEED TO READ
- Apicius’s famous De Re Coquinaria or some of the various English translations like this one available online or in libraries.
- De Honesta Voluptate (1475) written by the Italian, Platina
- Forme of Cury (put together in 1380 at the court of Richard II of England)
- Le Viander van Taillevent (1312 – 1395) who was the French king’s chef.
- The Opera by Scappi, first published in 1570
- De verstandige kock
- The Roman Cookery Book
- Die Geskiedenis van Boerekos 1652 – 1806 written by H.W. Claassens (and probably the best source you’ll find on the subject)
By the time you’ve worked your way through these, you’ll agree with me and you’ll be able to skip the next bit.
INTERESTING FACTS ON THE HISTORY OF CAPE CURRY
- To begin, bear in mind the influence of the Arabs on cooking in Europe during the Middle Ages – it was huge and they used spices with gusto, not that it was anything new because the Italians had been using it since the beginning of the millennium anyway.
- Bobotie, a Cape favourite, originated in ancient Rome, was already eaten in Roman homes during the time of Jesus and the recipe hasn’t changed too much, the Dutch brought the recipe to the Cape when they arrived here but made a few differences – for example, Apicius used pine nuts & the Dutch used almonds.
- By the time the Dutch arrived in the Cape in 1652 they knew how to make curry and it was often found on the menu, both in South Africa and in Holland.
- By 1689 the Dutch were already making pickled fish which was made with curry spices (Ovington).
- In the book Een Notabel Boecxken van Cokeryen (ca 1510) written by Thomas van der Noot a recipe called Galantijn Totter Vloten (curried fish) details the spices as cardamom, ginger, cloves, saffron, cinnamon and galangal (wild ginger) and made with a sauce of vinegar, wine and breadcrumbs (as thickener); it’s possible that this recipe was originally Arabian but let’s not go into too much detail because this post isn’t for academics.
It is clear, therefore that various types of curry are made in the Cape, because the region is so cosmopolitan and because of the history. That said, the Malay people not only make extraordinarily good curries, they are unquestionably the champions in these parts; their curries are unique to the Cape and they differ from Durban curries (Cape Malay curries are sweeter & almost always served with rice & sambals) as the Durban curries follow in the Indian tradition but with an African twist.
CAPE CURRIES TODAY
It’s impossible to categorize the curries made in the Cape nowadays because there’s a massive variety and most people cook and eat all of them. The Cape is ueber-cosmopolitan and we cook West African, Thai, Indian, Cape Malay, Indonesian, Malaysian and East African curries as the mood hits us.
STUFF YOU NEED TO KNOW IF YOU’RE INVITED TO A MEAL IN A CAPE MALAY HOME
- Be grateful for the invitation and never turn it down; if you have any other appointment, cancel it – even if you’ve been invited for tea with the president.
- Cape Malays are hospitable to a fault & you will be served a veritable feast (a niyyat).
- Guests can take leftover food home in serviettes (it’s not considered rude as it would be anywhere else) because the hostess believes that food no longer belongs to her but to the guests; don’t be shy, take it home.
- Before you eat, the Bismallah is recited, which means “In the name of Allah” – just do what the family does; I always take a scarf to cover my head as sign of respect to the hostess; they probably won’t expect you to but it’s just good manners.
- In accordance with tradition, the host has to serve himself first and then the older male guests – it’s not rude, it’s polite.
- In traditional homes all food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand only so that the palm of the hand never get’s dirty while the left hand is used for other chores (obviously soup & some desserts aren’t eaten by hand); non Cape Malay guests are usually given cutlery and nowadays, in less traditional homes, cutlery is used anyway.
- You will probably be invited in the evening when the head of the household is home – excepting on Fridays when the men go to Mosque for the Jumuah (a customary prayer meeting).
- On a Sunday, you’d probably be invited for lunch (it is generally believed that anybody outside of the immediate family who enjoys a meal with the host is blessed (barakat) and the hostess always makes sure there’s enough food for the unexpected guest; I have been blessed many times.
- In all probability, all the courses will be laid out simultaneously on the table and everyone decides what they want to eat.
- The hostess will hover about, so don’t worry about that.
- If you’re extremely lucky, your hostess will be a modji-cook (this is a super cook who also caters at weddings & funerals); she’ never gets paid for doing this – it’s an honour.
- You’ll here the word ‘kanala’ often – it means please.
- You will quite probably eat curry, even on a sweltering hot day because it’s believed that it cools down the body.
EASY VEGETABLE CURRY
Just in case you have vegetarian guests, here’s simple curry to make so that they don’t feel left out – you can use any veggies you like or have in stock.
- 1 small gem squash, cut into quarters, seeds removed
- 10 baby carrots, peeled and sliced in half
- 2 good sized potatoes, peeled and quartered
- 1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into bite sized chunks
- 2 zucchini, cleaned and cut into chunks
- 1 handful baby corn
- ½ butternut, peeled and cut into chunks
- ½ a head of broccoli, broken into florets
- 1 piece of cassia
- 2 green cardamom pods, broken open and seeds removed – only use the seeds, discard the shell
- 1 onion, chopped
- 15 ml tinned tomato puree
- 1 tomato, blanched, peeled and finely chopped
- 5 ml leaf masala
- 5 ml ground turmeric
- 1 star anise
- Salt to taste
- 250 ml water
- ½ tsp sugar
- ½ tsp jeera (cumin)
- 8 curry leaves
- See to it that all the veggies have been washed clean and put into a colander to dry before heating the oil in a heavy based saucepan and add the cinnamon & the cardamom to fry until they crackle before adding the onion and frying until it’s golden brown (make sure that you haven’t turned the heat to high because spices can burn quite quickly).
- Add the tomato puree, the masala, the turmeric, the star anise and the salt and stir well before adding the water; now pop in the veggies, stir gently and sprinkle over the sugar before cooking for 15 minutes on medium heat.
- Sprinkle over the jeera and finish the cooking process – you need a good bit of gravy here, so make sure that you have enough liquid.
- Add the curry leaves 5 minutes before you’re ready to serve then serve with white or yellow rice.
BASIC SPICES USED IN CAPE MALAY CURRY
- Barishap (this is the Malay name for fennel) – ground barishap is often used for breyani; only the seeds are used, never the bulbs.
- Bay Leaves (this always found in sosaties & denningvleis) but if there’s none around, lemon leaves will do.
- Borrie (turmeric) – it’s used in most curries & sosaties as well as in curried fish and the famous yellow rice.
- Koljander (coriander)
- Curry Leaves (use the dried ones because the green ones go black quite quickly, even in the fridge) – it’s vital in leaf masalas
- Dhania or dhunia – these are fresh coriander leaves (called cilantro in the USA) and it’s used with gusto.
- Garlic – it’s used fresh with grated ginger & also minced with oil and kept in the fridge (I do not recommend this as garlic in oil becomes toxic in the fridge.)
- Jeera (cumin) and is usually found in masala, most curries and breyani (which is also a curry)
Malay curry powder (usually a mixture of borrie, koljander, jeera (cumin), ginger, fenugreek, black peppercorns, chilli & mustard seeds); if you’re looking for spices, there‘s only one place to go and that’s Atlas Trading in Wale street: you can buy every spice you could possibly need (even spices like ganthora powder) and if you like, they’ll even mix masalas for you or you can ask them what they have available. The best thing about the place is that everything’s always fresh. I love the place
- Masala – the Cape Malay’s use loads of this stuff: it is an aromatic blend of spices used in curries & there are loads of different kinds including the usual wet & dry; each curry requires it’s own masala and if you’re still a novice, go to Atlas (or a similar store) and tell them what you’re making so they can advise you what you need) & if you can’t do that, ask me – I’ll be happy to help.
- Atjar masala – this is typical of Cape Malay Curries & is a mixture of spices containing ground chillies, borrie ground methi, mustard seeds and salt with oil added to turn it into a paste.
- Breyani masala – this is generally made with koljander, whole jeera seeds, barishap, cardamom, bay leaves, star anise and cinnamon (roast this before grinding)
- Garam masala – contains dhania leaves, garlic, fresh grated ginger and loads of green chillies.
- Leaf masala – there are loads of varieties but bear in mind that the redder it is, the hotter it will be (from the chillies). The yellower ones are similar but with more turmeric and thus for a milder curry
- Methi (fenugreek) – here only the hard lentil type seeds is used; it’s ground and must be used with much care.
- Naartjie Peel (similar to mandarin, Satsuma or tangerine) – it’s an Afrikaans word taken from the Tamil word “nartei” which means citrus.
- Saffron – it’s mainly used in breyani but not in curries because they flavour will be destroyed.
- Star Anise
- Tamarind – it’s used in denningvleis which isn’t a curry but so typically Cape Malay that I just had to add it.
CAPE MALAY CHICKEN CURRY
I always include a chicken curry for two reasons – firstly everyone always has chicken in the freezer because it’s cheap and tasty and secondly, it’s a great way to compare the different cooking styles.
- 1 kg chicken portions – I like to use chicken breasts (bone in) but it’s a personal thing
- 2 generous tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tsp sugar
- 2 heaped tsp fresh ginger, finely grated
- 4 cloves garlic, pounded into a paste
- 9 green cardamom pods – pound them lightly and remove the little black seeds & discard the outer casing
- 6 x 3 cm cinnamon sticks
- a blade of mace
- 1 extra large onion, peeled and chopped
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 3 tsp leaf masala, heaped
- 10 curry leaves
- 2 star anise
- 1 tsp barishap (fennel seeds)
- 1 ½ tsp jeera (cumin), ground
- Salt to taste
- 250 ml water
- 2 tbsp oil for frying
- Make sure the chicken is clean and pick out any hairs on the skin (you can remove the skin after you’ve cooked the curry (as do I) but leave it on for the correct flavour.
- Heat the oil in a heavy based saucepan, add the cardamom and the cinnamon and fry until it crackles then add the onion and stir fry until the onions are golden brown.
- In the meantime cook the potatoes for 15 minutes and wash well to remove all starchiness.
- Now stir in the garlic paste and the grated ginger and mix with the onions before adding the tomato paste, the leaf masala and the water and stir through before adding the chicken with salt to taste, the curry leaves and the star anise and cook for 15 minutes on a medium simmer; now add all the rest of the ingredients (including the potatoes), stir gently to blend and turn down the heat allowing the chicken curry to simmer gently for half an hour or until the chicken is tender (if you need to add more water, do so); serve with rice or roti.