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Here In Africa: Cape Town’s Malay Quarter – Part One

“The Malays have given South Africans another valued legacy much appreciated and enjoyed all over the country. This is their Eastern inspired recipes such as Bobotie (a casserole of lightly spiced and curried minced meat with a custard topping), koeksusters (narrow doughnut-like pastries, fried in oil and dipped in thick sugar syrup) and sosaties (small pieces of chicken, beef or lamb soaked in a curried sweet/sour marinade and threaded onto thin wooden sticks). These are “braaied” or barbecued (cooked over hot coals outdoors) and much enjoyed by everyone.,’’ writes Barbara Durlacher, introucing us to a flavoursome quarter of the city of Cape Town.

Unlike the French Quarter of New Orleans, the Malay Quarter of Cape Town covers a relatively small area, and like its trans-Atlantic cousin it has an interesting past. New Orleans was first founded by the Native People (Red Indians) as a trading post on the banks of the Mississippi River and grew into a large trading settlement. In 1718 a French Canadian Naval Officer, Commander Jean de Bienville built a fort to protect the expanding community and its increasing economic importance and over time, this led to a permanent settlement and eventually a large city.

Later, the introduction of black Africans captured by slave traders on the West Coast of Nigeria and shipped across the Atlantic in inhuman conditions to work the sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations guaranteed the future of the Southern States, and in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, this former French Colony was incorporated into the United States and the future of New Orleans was assured. As the years passed the popularity of this gracious and colourful city became an important part of the culture of the Mississippi river basin.

Similarly, the Malay Quarter has historic links stretching back more than four centuries to the time of the discovery of South Africa and the founding of the refreshment station at the Cape. Home to a small population of Malays, many of whom were practicing Moslems, this small enclave was the base for a uniquely separate group of people from the islands of Micronesia. They were brought to the Cape as slaves and political or religious dissidents at the time of the Dutch occupation of the Cape and Indonesia, then known as Batavia. Today, this small settlement on the slopes of Signal Hill is protected by an Act of the National Monuments Commission as one of the last remaining historic parts of old Cape Town and enjoys a culture and way of life not found in other parts of South Africa.

Many of these people were skilled artisans much in demand by the newly emerging merchant class of Cape Town keen to employ them as carpenters, metal-smiths, and builders, and the legacy they have left behind is one of the most gracious and attractive features of the Cape. It is shown most clearly in the beautiful gables of the old manor houses in Constantia, the carved pediments and window frames of the spacious homesteads in the wineland areas of the Western Cape and, perhaps most well known, in the delicious recipes which originated from their homeland. What we now call Asian-fusion cuisine has, in the different culture of Southern Africa, become our local bredies, sweet/sour curries, sosaties and koeksusters and are now established favourites of those who know them.

When they arrived from the Far East in the late 17th century and early 1700s, the Dutch East India Company (Vereeniging Ooste-Indische Company, or VOC) was in control of the sea routes around the Cape to India and the Far East, in particular the hundreds of islands of Micronesia, at that time known as Batavia. This large area formed an important part of the Dutch overseas trading empire, and the original settlement at the Cape was started as a way-station for the ships and crews on the long voyage around Africa. Here the exhausted sailors of the Dutch ships could get fresh meat, water and vegetables, re-caulk the hulls of their leaking vessels, repair the sails and rest from the ardours of their journey.

As the Dutch control of Micronesia tightened, it became necessary to suppress any opposition to their rule, and in consequence religious and political dissenters were exiled to prevent them breaking the stranglehold of the occupying power. The Cape provided a convenient dumping ground for these unfortunate people in the same way as a century or so later the “Antipodes” did for the “criminals” shipped from Britain in the late 1700s and into the first half of the 19th century, some for the most minor and insignificant of crimes.

As the merchant class in Cape Town grew and expanded, so too did their desire to build fine homes, churches, business premises and public buildings. The skills the exiles brought with them as carpenters, sculptors and craftsmen were much in demand and it soon became obvious that living close to their work was essential. Many Malays lived in the old District Six – (previously situated close to the Castle on the old Foreshore of the city) before the district was demolished with Apartheid legislation and they were re-located to the Cape Flats.

However, a nucleus of old families remained in the “Bo Kaap” (Above Cape) and they continued to live in the idiosyncratic houses at the base of Signal Hill. Overlooking today’s City Bowl and central business district, these small homes were built on land left vacant due to the steep slope and today they are one of the features of Cape Town and an important tourist draw-card.

Also known as the Malay Quarter, the area consists of around 50-60 small terrace houses with high, narrow front stoops (unroofed verandas). Built in the Georgian-style fashionable in Cape Town during the time of the British occupation of the Cape in the 1800’s, the houses are single-storied, flat-fronted and flat-roofed. Today their outward appearance is enhanced by the variety of colours in which they are painted, from soft pastels to an occasional soft mint green or orange.

The area runs from approximately Buitengracht Street along Wale Street to the slopes of Signal Hill above the new football stadium, and is known locally as Schotsche Kloof. The steep gradient and cobbled streets, the narrow pavements with panoramic views of the harbour and the wide sweep of Table Bay make this a highly desirable address, but houses in the Malay Quarter are slow to change hands. A number of mosques with attractive minarets serve the local community who cling with determination and pride to the area with its associations going back six or seven generations.

The Malays have given South Africans another valued legacy much appreciated and enjoyed all over the country. This is their Eastern inspired recipes such as Bobotie (a casserole of lightly spiced and curried minced meat with a custard topping), koeksusters (narrow doughnut-like pastries, fried in oil and dipped in thick sugar syrup) and sosaties (small pieces of chicken, beef or lamb soaked in a curried sweet/sour marinade and threaded onto thin wooden sticks). These are “braaied” or barbecued (cooked over hot coals outdoors) and much enjoyed by everyone.

Also popular are the highly coloured sweets adapted from Indian cuisine; their highly individual music which includes the ghoema drum and accompanying “folk-loric” songs, and a number of famous Malay Male Voice Choirs.

A celebration of this music and the colourful culture of the Malays is held every year in Cape Town on Die Tweede Nuwe Jaar (2nd January). On this day, in the searing heat and fierce light of mid-summer, long processions of colourfully dressed men march for miles serenading the local population with versions of their popular songs until they reach a local football stadium. Here, keenly anticipated competitions are held to choose the best choir, and the winning costumes and finery of the various troops of dancing minstrels ensure a constant flurry of excitement and entertainment for all.

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To be continued.

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