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A World of Curries: South and East Africa PDF Print E-mail
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A World of Curries: South and East Africa
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By Dave DeWitt



Malawi Curry Powder


Ethiopian Curried Butter

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The Dutch colonized South Africa because of its ideal position halfway between the Netherlands and the Spice Islands.  It was a perfect outpost for raising the vegetables and livestock necessary to replenish their ships. In 1652, the Dutch East India Company dispatched a party of officials to the Cape to establish a "revictualling station."

"Within fourteen days of their arrival," wrote Renata Coetzee in The South African Culinary Tradition, "these early settlers had laid out a vegetable garden."  They planted sweet potatoes, pineapples, watermelons, pumpkins, cucumbers, radishes, and citrus trees such as lemons and oranges.

Ambrosia from the Cape

Cape Town, c. 1885                                                             
Cape Town from Table Mountain, 2006

Late in the seventeenth century, with the "revictualling" station in operation, commerce between the Dutch East India Company and the new Dutch colony of South Africa picked up considerably because of an important commodity: Malay slaves, referred to in South African literature as "the king of slaves."  The men were utilized as farmers, carpenters, musicians, tailors, and fishermen, while the women were expert cooks who not only introduced exotic Spice Islands dishes, but also imported the spices necessary to prepare them.  

Among the Malaysian spices transferred by the slaves to South Africa were anise seed, fennel, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, cumin, coriander, mustard seed, tamarind, and garlic.  Chiles, of course, were introduced by the Portuguese traders and eventually were disseminated across Africa by birds.  Curiously, coconuts--so important in the Spice Islands--do not play a role in South African curries.

The Cape Malays, as the slaves' descendants were called, developed a unique cuisine called, by some, "Old Cape Cookery."   It evolved into a mixture of Dutch, English, and Malay styles and ingredients--with an emphasis on the Malay.  Predominant among the numerous cooking styles were curries and their accompaniments.  As early as 1740, "kerrie-kerrie" dishes were mentioned in South African literature.  That terminology had changed by 1797, when Johanna Duminy of the Riviersonderend valley, wrote in her diary:  "When the evening fell I had the candles lit, the children were given their supper and put to bed.  At nine o'clock we are going to have a delicious curry."

Johanna's curry probably was milder than that of today in South Africa, because for a time the amounts of chiles and green ginger were greatly reduced for Dutch palates.  But the Cape Malays relished the heat, and Harva Hatchen, author of Kitchen Safari pointed out:  "Curries are as much a part of Malay cooking as they are of Indian."

Generally speaking, Cape Malay curries usually contain meat and are not as highly spiced with chiles as their Asiatic cousins.  Onions and tomatoes are added to achieve a truly thick curry, and sometimes potatoes are placed in the curry for extra body.  The Malay curries--usually eaten with the fingers--are a meal in themselves.  They are eaten with rice and roti bread as accompaniments and are served with salads, sambals, pickles, and chutneys.

Perhaps the all-time favorite Cape Malay curry is pinang-kerrie, the name thought to be a corruption of pin'dang.  It is this curry--flavored with curry spices, tamarind, and fresh orange leaves--that prompted the passionate quotation by the Afrikaans poet C.L. Leipoldt: "There is reason to assume that the ambrosia of which the ancient poets spoke of so often was a kind of ginger chile called pinang curry...."  Leipoldt also observed: "Do not suppose that pinang meat is just an ordinary curry."  

The Cape Malays, however, were just one of the curry influences on South Africa.  The first shipment of indentured Indian laborers arrived in Natal, in the eastern part of the country, on November 16, 1860, to work on the sugar plantations.  Within six years, about five thousand Indians were working in Natal, and of course, they brought their Indian curry traditions with them.  It seems that the British taste for curries had waned somewhat as the pioneers ventured further from Cape Town.

"They helped re-stimulate the flagging appetite for Far Eastern dishes," explained Laurens Van der Post, in his book, First Catch Your Eland.  "Curries again became a regular feature of life in the interior.  No week would go by without at least one if not two main curry dishes appearing in the average household."  Van de Post noted that nearly everything edible was curried, including head cheese and sheep's heads, feet, and tripe.  "The reappearance of curry in the fundamental and most conservative departments of the kitchen of the interior," he wrote, "shows to what depth the Indian influence spread."

The indentured laborers used a spice mix called mussala (an obvious corruption of masala), which is the simplest form of curry powder in South Africa, but its basic ingredients vary considerably. One version contains just turmeric, cumin, and red chile powder, while another is composed of equal amounts of fennel, coriander, cinnamon, and cumin.  

Curries are universally loved in South Africa and they cross cultural and racial barriers.  In describing the curries of Natal, Laurens Van der Post made a sort of culinary appeal to free South Africa: "Curry in all the forms in which it is done in India is served in hotels and homes and eaten with relish," he wrote, "however strong the colour prejudice of the household in which they are served. If only the heart in South Africa could be governed for a year or two by the national palate, there would be no apartheid or racial prejudice left in the land, because our cooking is the best advertisement the world could possibly offer for a multi-racial society, free of religious, racial, and other forms of discrimination."  Fortunately, much has changed in South Africa since he made that comment.


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