Cape Malays…

and their Heritage

Culinary Heritage Battle over Bobotie

Posted by tahirfarrath on July 4, 2013

(Omar Badsha)
Published in General 12 Jun 2013
South African History Online

It is turning out to be a battle royal in food circles – is bobotie a true Cape Malay dish or is it “boerekos” that were merely made in the kitchen by slaves from the East? And as such, to whom does this heritage food belong? In the latest edition of De Kat, the debate is brought to the fore and for many food and heritage experts in the Cape Muslim community, it is about time that the matter is properly addressed, given how much of their heritage they have lost because of others claiming it or an inability to properly record it.

In a letter sent to the magazine earlier this year, author of Die Geskiedenis van Boerekos 1652 – 1806, W.W.Claassens took strong exception to “unfounded stories” by authors of the 20th century whom she said had not done the necessary research about the origin of traditional Afrikaner dishes. Bobotie, she wrote, is not a product or improvised dish based on an original recipe of the Cape Malays. After many years of research, she said she had proven that the names Cape Malays gave to food was their only contribution to the development of boerekos.

Claassens added that “the most important Afrikaans writers who were so eager about the contribution of the slaves to boerekos, are busy rewriting their books.” She bases her opinion on the claim that Eastern slaves were never a dominant group at the Cape and as such, they would not have been able to have a significant influence on the food of the Cape. Nor would the wives of the slave owners have allowed them to dominate in the kitchen by cooking foods from their homelands, even if they could afford to buy Eastern spices.

Other side
However, journalist and local food blogger, Johan Liebenberg, who wrote the De Kat article pointed out that several of Claassens assumptions were wrong. He quoted historical sources that sighted that by 1731, the slave population comprised 42% of the city’s population. He also pointed out the shortage of women in the early days at the Cape or the lack of knowledge among those who were here to cook with Eastern spices. Other historical sources confirm that slave women were an integral part of the households at the Cape in the era 1657 – 1808 and even in the 19th century, they played a key role in preparing meals, he wrote.

As for bobotie itself, Claassens claims that it stems from a Roman chef and added that its original name had long fallen by the wayside. However, Liebenberg’s research shows Dutch sources confirming that the dish came via the Cape of Good Hope from Indonesia or vice versa and from there was brought to the Netherlands around the 17th century. He even found proof of such recipes dating back to the 18th century where it was known as “bebotok”, close enough to bobotie.

Liebenberg believed that Claassens should have paid more attention to the role of the Dutch East India Company in the development of certain dishes in colonies it had occupied. From 1602 – 1796 the DEIC had almost a million employees in the East who all had to bring some influence from those countries with them when they returned home, especially with regards to food. It can also not be ignored that many of these officials had taken Eastern women as partners, which helped to create a Creolised culture in the early Cape with multiple influences from Europe, Africa and Asia, he argued.

Denying heritage
While he had great appreciation for the research Claassens had done, Liebenberg wrote, he concurred with the UNESCO view that there is not just one narrative on heritage studies. That, he wrote, is the story of our history. He points out that little is really known about the women or slaves at the early Cape. They were not in the habit of writing down their recipes when they were battling to survive while working in the kitchens, in gardens or elsewhere. “They have already been denied their heritage once. And now a second time?” he asked.

Meanwhile, a member in the Cape Muslim Family Research Forum pointed out that no spokesperson from the Cape Muslim community has stepped into the fray to contest the claim that Cape Malay food tradition has no historical ties. “Thus it is claimed that signature Cape Malay dishes merely have south East Asian labels, whilst the actual recipes are derived from the slave master’s kitchen,” he wrote.

“This is a type of age old Verwoerdian ideological approach with a narrow heritage lens of focussing on European food origins, whilst intentionally denying the Cape Muslim community its slave legacy of a rich Creolised food ways. We must add to the South African rainbow, not subtract from the national heritage legacy,” he said, urging a national debate on a long neglected issue.

Bobotie is a Cape-Malay creation, and they (the Malays) spiced it up even more with cumin, coriander and cloves, with influences from the Dutch who brought ground meat to the local cuisine, the spices were introduced by the slaves from Indonesia and the presentation is reminiscent of English shepherd’s pie. (Bobotie: why so silent? – VOC, Munadia Karaan)

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