My food heritage: The women and food who helped form my identity as a Coloured South African
For many years I saw myself on the periphery of an already marginalised community because I struggled to see my place in it. I hadn’t learnt how to make the food so many people see as cornerstones of Cape Malay and Coloured people, because I had assumed that my grandmother, my mother and my aunts would always be there to make it for me. I revelled in that youthful selfishness and didn’t understand the rich history behind what I consumed on a daily basis.
It was only after my grandmother’s death when I used her recipe to teach myself – with my mother’s help – how to cook breyani, that I felt more in touch with it; that I understood the weight of it all, tied so fully into tradition. I started on that journey because I wanted to know everything about my family and wanted to eat the food I loved eating growing up, but I had so few answers.
A large source of those answers was lost to me forever a few weeks ago. I had a draft written for this piece, ready to go and saved on my desktop, but then my world changed. One of the people who shaped who I am and what I love to eat died of COVID-19.
She was my aunt and her name was also Alex. Everyone called her Alexis and she was one of my favourite people in the world. Her term of endearment for me was “namesake”. She taught me how to play cards and to stand up for myself, and loved hot chips and samoosas as much as I do. Food was her love language and she was truly gifted at making it. Up until she fell ill, she worked with Meals on Wheels, feeding the people who needed it the most.
The first draft I had written didn’t mention her by name; it was all about how I started making the food that my mother, grandmothers and aunts had made my entire life, cooking it in my own way and perfecting it to my adult taste. It was all about me, but in the past few weeks I’ve grappled with the fact that I am made up of little pieces of the women I love.
Alexis had recipes that I had never learned, because in my 20s I thought her, my mom and my other aunts would always be there every Sunday to sit around a table with me. In the first piece I wrote, I spoke about how I came to appreciate the stories behind the food because they are what shaped these dishes. Over the past few months I’ve researched how they originated out of necessity; how the rich Cape Malay culture is tied irrevocably with Apartheid and slavery. How those rich tapestries of memory were torn apart by Cape Town’s forced removals that robbed so many of their history as well as their sense of community.
One of the biggest triggers for this journey, where I want to write down as many recipes and stories as I can, has been The District Six Huis Kombuis: Food & Memory Cookbook. It tells the stories that I wish were easier to find, of people who loved and shared nourishment as well as knowledge. Stories of making a pot stretch with ingredients that were easier to come by. Stories of why the cheaper cuts of beef are used, not just how to cook them.
Processing that and then being hit by my beloved aunt’s death helped crystallise the fact that the food I grew up with is anything but simple. It is rich and complex in origin and method. Unique to each kitchen, family and neighbourhood. Everything is more complicated and intricate than it seems. I truly understand now that large figures of my childhood – like my aunt and both my grandmothers – are gone, along with their dishes.
I understand now that food is memory, because one bite can take you back to a moment that is part of a bigger tradition and culture. Sharing a meal is a way of celebrating everything that it takes to bring that to the table – our shared painful history, with its joy and tears all mixed together.
My happiest memories of my aunt were when we would start making Sunday lunches in my mother’s kitchen in the first half of the mornings with the radio blaring. She would do all the prep work in a highly organised system. Two things were always on our lunch table: a curry and a roast of some sort – usually chicken.
That tradition was more than what I saw growing up, it started before I was even born. It started with my grandmother, Jane Hearne. She was a fastidious woman who liked routine and planned her meals every day of the week. In her home in Heathfield, my mother and her sisters and brothers knew that Sundays were for roasts, just like Friday dinners were for fish and breakfast was always steel-cut oats. To her, there was only one way to do things: her way. She had that stubbornness in common with my father’s mother, Maurita Isaacs, who lived in Retreat. Somewhere between their two styles, my mother’s cooking was formed, because she met my father when they were still in high school. They were married for over a decade by the time I came into the world and in the midst of their intermingling traditions, we would eventually form our own.
The two sides of my family overlapping has been a running theme throughout my life, especially when it came to food, and they both shaped my understanding of what Coloured culture is. My aunts Lorna and Alex, along with my father’s sister, Benni, were often in the kitchen with my mother. They were her co-conspirators in whatever was being cooked. My only job was to float in and make tea or wash the endless stream of dishes. After the reward of lunch was shared and the cleaning was over, I was often allowed to come and play cards while eating slangetjies, and sometimes my father would come in to make snackwiches for dinner with the leftover roast or curry from lunch.
To me, Coloured culture, and especially our food culture, is about family. Yes, eating the breyani and curry and roast was always tasty, but making the food is where the real memories are.
READ MORE by Alex Isaacs
How a chicken pie made my chef girlfriend fall in love with me
5 things I learnt while making breyani with my mother
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