From Leipoldt's Food & Wine
by Dr. C. Louis Leipoldt
My interest in cookery dates from the time when, as a little boy in the late eighties of the nineteenth century, I assisted, in a very minor and suppressed capacity, at the culinary operations of a very expert Coloured woman cook who bore the reputation of being one of the best in the Cape Colony. Fat to the verge of obesity, she presided over a kitchen whose cleanliness could have served as a model for an operating theatre of a modern hospital, largely because she insisted that punctilious, painstaking ablution was an indispensible preliminary in the preparation of food. Her inculcation of these elementary principles, often accompanied by a good-natured but nevertheless painful prodding of my juvenile person with the large wooden spoon that was her sceptre, helped me – in later years when I learned to better my taste and broaden my experience – to realise how any infringement of them inevitably impairs the excellence of all cookery.
The Ayah’s art was the result of many years of instruction and experience in the traditional methods of Malay cookery, whose outstanding characteristics are the free, almost heroic, use of spices and aromatic flavourings, the prolonged steady, but slow, application of moist heat to all meat dishes, and the skilful blending of many diverse constituents into a combination that still holds the essential goodness of each. Her dishes, that were eaten by Governors, Prime Ministers and Very Important Persons, were made from old recipes that were firmly enshrined in her memory, for she never referred to written or printed directives. Nearly every one of these recipes is to be found in cookery books that were then already well known – without, however, the little modifications that her own ingenuity and experience had enabled her to add for their improvement.
The Malay community at the Cape has always had a reputation for its good cookery, and even now the best women cooks are to be found among the Coloured people, who have been trained to appreciate all that is best in both eastern and western culinary fashions. In the old days a Malay cook was regarded as indispensible for the household that wished to entertain; slaves who had knowledge of this kind of cookery commanded a far higher price than other domestic chattels. Thus a local advertisement stated that: ‘Malani, a good cook, exceptionally skilled and not wasteful in the kitchen’, was one of five slaves to be sold on behalf of the estate of a deceased owner; while an account of a slave auction related that: ‘there was spirited competition for Emerentia, who is an acknowledged artist of the pot’.
At the hospitable house where the young officer, later on to be Lord Wellington, the conqueror of Napoleon, but at that time rusticating on his way to India, was frequently entertained by the richest man in Cape Town, the cook was a Coloured woman, skilled in the preparation of oriental dishes, and ably supported by her husband, who acted as butler.
Oriental influence, indeed, was predominant in Cape cookery, and its importance can easily be judged by the value attached to eastern spices and condiments in the old-fashioned recipes.