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‘Ou Mens Onder Die Komberse’ Old People Under The Blanket and Kitchen Dutch

  • Posted on December 12, 2012

In memory of my late mother and her two sisters.
In memory of my late mother and her two sisters.
‘If Cape Town was a meal what would it be?’ Many people would argue that some of the foods we eat today are Cape Malay, yet they are not. If you were born and bred on the Cape Flats and classified as so-called ‘Coloured’ it would be hard to answer this question.  A variety of spicy influences with profound international and African culinary threads weaved their way into our humble homes way back. Huis Kos or ‘Kaapse’ Kos was my introduction to food, in my mother’s kitchen.

In early Cape Town and the Western Cape our First People, Khoe Boesman and Slave descendent mothers and fathers ruled the kitchens of the Europeans. It is in these spaces that a new people were born, fashioning the primarily instruments of culture, their own language and cuisine. A language emerged from the kitchen, hence the derogatory nineteenth century term for ‘ kitchen Dutch’ or our the more acceptable term today, ‘Afrkaaps’, shaped by a variety of tastes and smells, and from the food came the new kitchen language.
This new language emerged early on in the Cape, before the late nineteenth century. Research into its making has been neglected as Afrikaans-speaking linguists remain uncomfortable with the idea that ‘Afrikaans’ origin lay in the colonial creolisation of the Dutch language. This spontaneous development of a new language emerged from domestic socialization among indigene, imported and local-born slaves, and Europeans. This purely slave language was not clearly understood by the master classes.  ‘An English visitor, Mrs. Kindersley, writing a personal letter from the Cape in 1765, a few years before half of the slave population was locally born, took pains to point out that the owners were obliged to learn the slaves’ language not the other way around’ according to Robert C.-H. Shell in Children of Bondage.  A Social History of the Slave Society at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-1838.

These slaves introduced a variety of dishes as they cooked and cleaned the houses of the Europeans from sun up to sun down. They used spices like garlic, ginger, tumeric or borrie, curry, masala, pepper, allspice, aniseed, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, barishap or fennel seeds, bay leaves, cardamom, mint, thyme, cayenne pepper, etc. Yet it was not Cape Malay, it was ‘Huis Kos’ (food cooked at home).

Whilst researching food in Cape Town I came across a dish I know called ‘Ou mens onder die komberse’ or ‘Old person under the blankets’, which our very own Zainab Lagardien renames, cabbage meatball wrap or ‘koolfrikkadel’ (cabbage meatball) in her cook book, Traditional Cape Malay Cooking.  My mother frequently cooked this mouthwatering soul food during the winter months to wage Cape Town’s cold wintry days and nights. Quite frankly I can have it all year round so I took this opportunity to share the recipe with you. It brought a comforting nostalgia over me on discovering the recipe at the District Six Museum in Cape Town.

2 slices bread soaked in water, please squeeze out the moisture. 1 large cabbage (peel off the leaves). 2 cloves of garlic. 2 beaten eggs.  Salt and pepper. Other ingredients would be 1kg steak mince, 3 onions, sliced. And 1 quarter cup of parsley and some oil for frying.

The method is as follows: Blanch cabbage leaves in boiling water for 5min, then drain. Place all ingredients in a large bowl. With finely sliced onions, mix into frikkadels. Place a frikkadel in the middle of each cabbage leaf and fold into parcels. Secure the filling with a tooth pick. Fry onions and remaining cabbage (finely sliced). Place cabbage parcel in sauce and cook on very low heat for an hour. Serve with brown or white fluffy rice. 

Others dishes that were handed down to me by my Mother included, Tomatie (tomato) bredie, Kreef (crayfish)  kerrie, cabbage bredie, fish and meat frikkadels, gesmoorde liver with onions, mossbolletjies, fried stock fish, spagetti and mince, snoek and mutton breyani. There are so many more. The museum displayed recipes like, imbiza, a Xhosa steam bread, Chutney, homemade baked bread, smoorsnoek and cabbage and some I mentioned above. I noticed many visitors writing down recipes.

The museum honours the memory and the people behind these dishes. Quaint displays with mouthwatering recipes line the passage and will whet any visitor’s appetite. These lovely recipes are meticulously embroidered on tapestry which a group of older women who had lived in District Six before resettlement made. This project is part of the Museum’s ongoing community research and outreach programmes as they continue to work with the healing of memory and remembering. They continue to find ways and methods to archive this valuable bank of historical information.

To those of us who don’t know, there’s always a first time. District Six was the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in 1867, originally established as a ‘mixed’ community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants. It was a once a vibrant community but later was destroyed with ‘black’ South Africans being the first to be resettled in other areas. By 1982 more than 60,000 people had been forcibly removed and the area flattened to let white people move in. The museum was established in 1994 to help District Six’s former residents heal from the trauma of being forcibly removed by the government and resettled in barren outlying areas of the Cape Flats and townships. Some have already reclaimed their land yet many are still waiting. However, the lengthy process of restitution is on-going. Part of the museum’s purpose is to provide a meeting space for the former residents of District Six, many of whom are quite elderly now. Each and every citizen of Cape Town, the Western Cape and South Africa should visit this amazing place.
In the early decades of the 18th century nearly 80 percent of all slaves that were imported came from the Indian subcontinent. And languages Dutch, French, Hindi, Indigene, Malay and Portuguese gave rise to the ‘Afrikaaps’ language we speak in the streets and on the Cape Flats today. This ‘kitchen Dutch’ shaped the literal more institutionalised Afrikaans we speak today. 

As I reflect on the ending of another year I honour the memory of our ancestors who brought unique cuisines onto our kitchen tables at home. They originated from the east coast of Africa to the outer reaches of Borneo and the shores of China. They were Abyssinian, Arabian, Bengali, Borneose, Brazilian, Javanese, Burmese, Chinese, Iranian, Japanese and Sri Lankan, the Indonesian Archipelago and Madagascar, Mozambique, Angola, from West Africa and Central Africa. Through this cultural melting pot emerged a unique brand unlike none other. 

Lucille Campbell is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Cape Town

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  • Well written, I could almost taste the food. Did you mention yellow rice with raisins? My mother used to serve that with the cabbage frikkadels. Proud of my heritage and thank you Lucelle for your dedication and commitment to bring all this history out of it’s hidden places. There is no shame in this history. Kerp telling these stories, we as Capetonians are hungry for this knowledge(well, I am). No pun intended.
    Thanx
    Charmaine Meissenheimer.

    By Charmaine on 14/12/2012
  • a wonderful and interesting site-thank you!

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  • Real history..

    By Charmaine on 03/02/2013
  • What a lekker article. Took me back many many years to the times when life was less complicated and much safer. PEACE

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