Battle over bobotie
Article courtesy of Munadia Karaan (Voice of the Cape Radio)
FEATURE Part 1 – 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.
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.
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.
More on this story on Sunday Live at 08h30. Also read Liebenberg’s full article here. VOC (Munadia Karaan)
FEATURE Part 2 – Bobotie might be a cultural landmark in the country, widely recognised to come from Cape Muslim heritage, but there has been a virtual silence in the so-called “Cape Malay” community after an Afrikaner writer claimed that they had nothing more to do with the traditional dish than naming it. According to author of Die Geskiedenis van Boerekos 1652 – 1806, WW Claasens (79), bobotie was in fact true blue “boerekos”. In response food blogger Johan Liebenberg took on Claasens’ reasoning in the 6 June edition of De Kat. Speaking to VOC’s Sunday Live, Liebenberg also took issue with the silence on the issue from the Cape Muslim community.
According to Beeld of 22 April 2004, Claassens’s research into the cuisine of slaves in the 17th century showed that perceptions that the slaves had brought the the art of cooking with spices to prepare dishes such as bobotie to the Cape, were unfounded. Where the slaves came from, people were too poor to afford spices, and they mainly used chillies, turmeric and ginger, she said.
“Slaves didn’t bring any new dishes to the Cape,” she claimed. They only learnt in the Cape about cooking with spices and the typical dishes that were brought to the Cape, according to cookbook authors. Claassens stated that the dishes that formed part of the food culture in the Cape in the 20th century, known as boerekos, were essentially European.
The main contributors were Dutch, German and French cooking, which in turn had its roots in Roman, Persian and Arabic cuisine. Claassens said the Dutch wouldn’t have bought spices from the East if they didn’t have any knowledge about it. She traced curried fish, as we know it today, back to Belgium where it was prepared as early as 1500.
This was hotly disputed and largely dismissed by Liebenberg, who told VOC in response: “What it proved to me was the fact that if you do a doctoral thesis or dissertation, you can arrange the facts as you like. That is why many – including in the foodie community in South Africa – accepted her opinion, because it seemed right as she expressed it.”
Liebenberg said that Claasens and her crew had used a book on the Arab influence in European food to prove that boerekos stemmed largely from European food. “But they largely forgot that there were influences from the Malay community.” He said he had to look at his own research and resources to dispute many of Claasens’ claims, amongst others that during the period in question slaves constituted 42% of the population and were not the minority as Claasens claimed.
“Some of my sources claimed that slaves were the majority, certainly as far as women were concerned,” he explained. Claasens also claimed that no European woman would give slave women the right to dominate in the kitchen on the preparation of dishes and the latter were anyway too poor to afford cooking with expensive spices. “I think that claim is ridiculous,” Liebenberg said shortly.
“But what I find more astounding is that no one in the Cape Malay community got up. And I am sorry if this is an indictment, but of all the historians in my beloved Malay community, why didn’t they get up and say this is not true? Why does it take an Afrikaner like me to say this is nonsense? She was awarded a PhD for this. There is a question begging,” Liebenberg stated.
Fellow panelist on Sunday Live, New Age journalist Yazeed Kamaldien, said that one reason for the silence might be the fact that people were so involved with bread and butter issues that it left little time to concern themselves with heritage issues. “But what is the bigger debate regarding Afrikaner heritage and culture? For example, we have had the issue of the Afrikaans language with people of colour coming forward to say it is their language as well.”
Liebenberg concurred and said it was necessary for his community to look at facts. “We regard ourselves as Afrikaner or whatever, but we are actually mixed. We are all a melting pot and we all have to realise that we are not one culture, but a hybrid of cultures. So we must get rid of our exclusivity in order for us to move forward a little bit.”
Given that the Afrikaner community was very proud of its heritage, which it had tried hard to preserve, Kamaldien asked: “Why was it so relevant for this author to claim something as bobotie as part of the Afrikaner culture? Is it because people feel constantly threatened, that they need to hold onto their past so badly? We actually see it as journalists that white Afrikaners feel so downtrodden in a country that used to belong to them.”
While it was true that Claasens came from a different generation, Liebenberg said her attitude was not completely unique to others in her community. “For example, in 1992 there was only one Afrikaner folk festival. Today there are five. In other words, I think the Afrikaners feels threatened and want to grab onto things that they regard as theirs. Often much of what they believed in, no longer exists,” he explained.
Meanwhile, Liebenberg reiterated his affection for Cape Muslims and their rich culture that he has strongly advocated in his work. “I grew up among Malay friends in Milner Road. The border between Military Road and I was the Bo-Kaap. Sometime around 1994, I had been busy taking photos for an article on the Bo-Kaap. A Malay woman invited me in for tea and koesisters. Her daughter also appeared with her young baby and I never understood why they showed such wonderful hospitality towards me. Until this day I wish I could contact them again to thank them for it,” he said wistfully.
While authorative voices in the Cape Muslim community were largely silent, the matter did evoke strong debate and even humour online, including from many ex-pats. Commenting on Facebook, Nawhal said it was both ironic and refreshing that a white Afrikaner male was championing the cause of “Cape Malays” – a term that in recent years were seldom used and substituted for Cape Muslims, which some felt was more politically correct.
“Until this day our slave ancestors are being questioned on their food. Let’s hope someone with the necessary skills will come up with details on who bobotie really belongs to. I’m rooting for a Cape Malay slave, stolen from Penang, who worked as a cook in some Cape Dutch household and she should ‘suma’ also be the one who added cinnamon and cardamon to the once boring milk tart, turning it into a ‘regte melktert’, while bringing her version of Penang curry with flaky rooti to the Cape,” she quipped.
Naeem felt that it was at times like these that the passion showed by people like the late Dr Achmat Davids to preserve Cape Muslim heritage was sorely missed in setting the record straight. Fara in the US took a dig at Claasens: “She cannot let go of the past. Let it go Claassens, it’s over. Bobotie belongs to us, ‘die Slamse kinners’ Lol.” Shaheda added: “At least in the US, they admitted that if it was not for the natives and the slaves, they would have starved to death or died of bland food. Lol.”
Zuid Afrikaner commented on VOCFM: “The only ‘contribution’ the current Boere made to OUR bobotie, was to add apricot jam and flaked almonds to it, eek!” Even non-Muslims like Jo-anne weighed in on the debate. “I consider bobotie to be part of my cultural heritage – and it’s a great family favourite. My ancestors include slaves and indigenous people; Dutch and French settlers, so maybe it’s one of those dishes that celebrates our shared and entangled histories.”
Heritage fundi, Kammie was irate at the exclusion of the Cape Malay’s contribution by Claasens and her ilk. “Bobotie has enriched two South African culinary traditions – boerekos foodways and Cape Malay cuisine. Thus bobotie as the national dish symbolises the one signature recipe whereby food is the great democratic leveller regardless of social status, rank or station in life,” he wrote on VOCFM.
“Communities have embraced Cape Malay cuisine as part of the South African culinary tradition with copies of Cape Malay cookery books by Cass Abrahams, Fadiela Williams, Zainab Lagerdien, not forgetting Boorhanool Movement’s perennial Boeka Treats, which are bestsellers in SA households, regardless of race, creed and language. Let’s focus on our shared food traditions ranging from bobotie to sosatie, from Orania’s koeksusters to Bo- Kaap’s koesisters,” he urged.
Another ex-pat, Salwaa of Cape Malay Cooking who is based in the UK had quite a bit to say. “I always thought bobotie was a Malay dish brought with the slaves from Java and Indonesia etc. Since starting my blog, I did lots of research into authentic Cape Malay recipes and all the articles I came across was of the notion that bobotie is a Cape Malay dish which came with slaves who arrived from Java and various Indonesian islands in 1658. Being slaves, the Malays often ended up in the Dutch kitchens and their influence remains apparent in dishes such as bobotie etc.
“The origins of the name are not clear although in Indonesia ‘bobotok’ was an Indonesian dish consisting of meat with a custard topping that was cooked in a pan of water until the egg mixture set. It’s also one of those dishes that reflects the history of the country and the many cuisines that melts together to create what we now know as South African cuisine. 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.
“It’s interesting as well to note that frikadel is a popular dish in Germany (they even make kool frikadel I believe) and Holland amongst other countries. Frikadel is also known in Indonesian cuisine through Dutch influence as ‘perkedel’. I believe the spiciness of bobotie came from the Indonesians who brought the spices with them. This is one of the reasons I started my food blog, to keep our food culture alive and to make the recipes accessible to all. Otherwise who knows, we might have more of these debates regarding our other cultural dishes in the future,” she wrote. VOC (Munadia Karaan)