Bustling Bo-Kaap curry

“It’s all about networking,” Gabebah Jassiem, committee member of the Bo-Kaap Cultural and Heritage Gateway, tells me with a nod. I have come to visit her at her home to find out more about the bustling Bo-Kaap and—appropriately—cook a curry.

One of the connection points of the community is the Bo-Kaap market, held on the first Saturday of every month at the civic centre, which brings together residents to trade home-cooked wares, crafts and clothing, and also get blood pressure checks and eye-tests. The market began as a gathering for graduates of an Absa skills development programme, but has grown into an anticipated monthly event.
(A second Bo-Kaap market recently opened at the Haas Coffee Collective.)

Though actively involved in the organisational side of the non-profit Gateway, Gabebah is also quite a cook. Four or five times a year she hosts foreign students for dinner at her home as part of a cultural exchange programme.

The menu is traditionally tasty: samoosas and poppadums, chicken curry and rice, and some milktart and koeksisters for dessert.

There are also Homestays where you can live with a family in the area for a couple of days to experience their way of life. These activities are organised by the Bo-Kaap Cultural and Heritage Gateway in conjunction with local and international organisations. Residents’ skills in the form of food and hand-made garments are utilised in nearby hotels like the Dutch Manor Boutique Hotel and the four star Coral Hotel, as well as the Iziko Museum. Through these opportunities, the Gateway encourages entrepreneurship with a particular focus on empowering women and youth.

After a brief chat in her front room, I spend some time with Gabebah in the kitchen where I hope to learn some chicken curry secrets. First she tells me that because the Bo-Kaap people are so social, cooks always prepare extra just in case.

“You never make just for two,” she smiles.

My granny talks about putting another potato in the pot should an unexpected visitor arrive, but Gabebah actually cooks with them in mind.

After deftly tightening her headscarf in preparation, Gabebah gets all the ingredients ready for cooking. She pours a little oil into the pan and it allows it to get warm. “This pan,” she tells me, “was given to us when we got married. And I still use it every night.”

I start to wonder about the fragrant stories this pan could tell, when—on cue—a round spice tin appears. It has separate compartments for all the warm amber and sepia colours; I am told the name of each one, and offered a cracked ilaachi (cardamom) seed to sniff. Gabebah says a tin like this would make a wonderful wedding gift too, as it’s ever so useful in a busy kitchen.

Once the oil is warm, my host scoops out one teaspoon of ground jeera (cumin), one teaspoon of ground danya (coriander) and one of bariship, a sweet spice faintly reminiscent of aniseed, and adds it to the pan. But that’s not all: a teaspoon of masala for bite, and half a teaspoon of turmeric for colour. The ilaachi is scattered in, along with a snapped cinnamon stick, and then a green chilli from the freezer is quickly sliced up into the pan.

Once the spices have released their flavour, the onions are added. A good shake of salt and some curry leaves (bought fresh at Atlas and then home-dried) are sprinkled in, as well as a finely chopped tomato. With chopped garlic (a generous spoonful) and a glug of water to help soften the onions, your curry sauce is on the go.

Gabebah steps out of the kitchen to take a phone call while I stir the spicy mix with a wooden spoon, careful not to let it burn. She returns to relieve me and I gratefully take my spot next to the stove to ask questions while she does her thing.

The chicken pieces go in next, along with the peeled potatoes. Don’t ask about exact amounts though—everything is measured with the eye after years of experience. “You just know how much to use,” Gabebah says with a laugh. She does, however, advise that if you are making a red meat curry, you should add the potatoes later on. (Beef and lamb cook slower than chicken, meaning your potatoes would be reduced to mush before the dinner bell rings.)

While we talk about how to add golden colour to a cauliflower bredie—half a teaspoon of brown sugar—and the best way to cook rice—in a Tupperware microwave container—the curry gets a squeeze of tomato paste, which gives it a promising caramel colour.

With all the hard work done, the lid is popped on and the chicken left to become tender and slowly absorb the spices. This leaves us a bit more time to chat over rooibos tea and homemade ginger cookies about family, weddings and travelling.

Gabebah then takes me around her house and proudly shows me two beautiful works of calligraphy that that she and her daughter painted together.

As our time draws to a close, I ask what the secret is to a good curry. “It’s just the spices you use,” Gabebah shrugs. I don’t quite believe her; her dish is imbued with a special something else. As I walk out onto the cobbled street in the late afternoon sunshine, I know the magic ingredient must be the Bo-Kaap itself.

Contact the Bo-Kaap Cultural and Heritage Gateway on +27 72 643 0054

Go to www.eat-in.co.za for more.

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