Sisters with intertwined personalities


Sisters with intertwined personalities

As someone who religiously frequents Parkers in Woodstock on Sundays for freshly fried koesisters and doesn't frown upon any misshapen, cold, roadside stall koeksister, SYBRANDUS ADEMA embarked on a historical journey to better understand the koe'sister debate.


FIRST there was a treat, then a monument, later still an international day on the first Sunday of every September. And finally, the academy had to intervene because the bitter disputes over sweet treats were taking up too much time.

Koeksister, koesister, and now the pastry-neutral koe'sister (use the apostrophe as you wish) have always had split personalities — ever since they first saw the light of day in sociable, cozy kitchens where everyone, regardless of class and race, came together and created new dishes and languages.

The koe'sister is indeed a metaphor for the continuously schizophrenic identity of Afrikaans speakers: do we share the same ancestors, are we one, who are we, what are we, are we all family? It is, after all, a story of slave owner and enslaved, master and servant, power and powerlessness, at times a story of mixing and respect, collaboration, gathering, and above all, eating together.

And since the abolition of apartheid's unnatural separation, it is also a story of reconciliation, reidentification (linguistically and otherwise) and a candid reinterpretation of history.

For clarification: koesister and koeksister have shared ancestors, but the two sisters are each a dish in their own right. They are still family, but each has walked her own path and has been repeatedly called by the “wrong" name.

Family explanation

Koesister without the “k" — the soft, fluffy sister — is a mixture of dough and spices fried in oil then dipped in warm syrup before being sprinkled with coconut. And if you find yourself in Cape Town's Muslim neighbourhoods on Sunday mornings, you'll see children walking around with bowls of these treats.

Koeksister with the “k" — the usually hard, braided sister — is dough that is fried in oil then dipped in cold syrup (sometimes flavoured). And it's the one you'll especially find at roadside stalls in the countryside and countless bazaars.

However, the ancestor of these two sisters is the Dutch “oliekoek", the same one Dutch immigrants took to America and which eventually gave birth to donuts, another relative of the two South African sisters. The other family members are the South African vetkoek and the Dutch “stroopwafel", but those are stories for another time.

According to Wikipedia, evidence of deep-fried, sweetened dough has been found at numerous ancient sites, but many of the modern versions can be traced back to the Dutch oliekoek. And the oliekoek can probably be traced back to plain vetkoek (without syrup), which, like the later roosterkoek at the Cape, was made from leftover dough which the family ate  while the bread was still baking. This vetkoek dough was later sweetened, flavoured with spices, deep-fried, then rolled in sugar or melted sugar. That's how it eventually became oliekoek.

At the Cape, oliekoek was called oil balls, but in the old Cape recipe manuscripts the shortened names “bolle" and “bollas" were predominantly used, influenced by Eastern cuisine. An old recipe from a woman named Galiema refers to round, cinnamon-flavoured and sugar-free bollas that were not pressed in syrup and were eaten for breakfast on Sundays. AKA koe'sisters. By the way, they are sometimes made from potatoes, too.

Regarding koeksisters, a different process took place, ultimately influenced more by European cuisine. The Dutch also brought European “krullers" to the Cape — a sweet dish made from dough that is twisted or braided in any shape before being fried in fat. It is then sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.

At the Cape, a Babylonian confusion arose when the same dough was used for oliekoek and krullers. The numerous South African recipe books that used the same names for different recipes or used various words for essentially the same sweet treat did not help either. Nor did the fact that the ingredients overlapped and changed — koeksisters are sometimes prepared in a more aromatic/Oriental manner and also sprinkled with coconut.

Big, small and chaste sisters

The original Cape name for koeksisters, koeksusters with a “u" — for braided krullers — probably originated from the cakes called groote zuster, kleine zuster and kuische zuster, a collection of classic recipes from that era. Many chefs supposedly divided the dough for koeksisters into three strips to braid, and the process may be connected to the names of the aforementioned three cakes. Hence koeksuster, which eventually became koeksister with an “i" due to rounding. Furthermore, it was eventually only dipped in cold syrup, and voilà, that's how we get the modern koeksister.

According to Google (“koeksister", 137,000 search results; “koesister", 11,600; and “koe'sister", 16,700), in recent years there was “The Great Koesister Skarrel", a social media quest for the best koe'sisters, and somewhere chef Naseer Abdullah is featured with an apron that reads “koesisters are vetkoek that believed in miracles".

A review of Fatima Sydow and Gadija Sydow Noordien's Kaap, Kerrie & Koesisters (2019) on LitNet focuses on koe'sisters; (“tastes like koesisters should taste!") is focused on everything that is koeksister; and the Afrikaanse Taalmuseum offered a conversation titled “Dis my koeksister en jou koesister" in 2017.

Up to this point, I understood everything until I came across Rudolph Boraine's 2021 thesis, “The koeksister: a twisted history?" This culinary-historical writing for his BA degree not only earned him a cum laude but  numerous media interviews and articles. Clearly, the matter lies close to the South African heart. And tongue and stomach.

A doughy twist in history

The young man delves into global and national (sometimes nationalist) food history literature, as well as the general meaning/importance of food — chocolate, fish and chips, and so on — in history (who knew it was a thing?). He dedicates one chapter, “A Dark History of Tea", to the mythical link between tea as a food commodity and witchcraft. Strange but true.

According to Boraine, the idea of food as a “cultural marker" can be controversial or even contested. “This is the case when two cultures attach a changing historical legacy to the evolution of a specific food item." Like the koeksister, which has a diverse and overlapping legacy in Dutch and Cape Malay South African history. A historical contradiction has arisen between white Afrikaner Afrikaans and brown Cape Malay Afrikaans over who can rightfully claim the koeksister as a traditional item of cultural identity.

“I believe that there is indeed one community with different types of food and traditions because there are clear differences between the koeksister and koesister," says Boraine. “But because of the similarities, one must always consider the influence of different cultures on each other, including in terms of food, which means that the traditions of various communities may not necessarily be clearly distinguished."

According to Boraine, his mother was his inspiration for the study because she introduced him to koesisters. “I like both because each has unique flavour elements, such as the strong spiciness in the koesister and the sweet syrupy scent in the koeksister."

A mouthful of research

Regarding South African food histories, Boraine delved into Hester Claassens' Die Geskiedenis van Boerekos (2006), Renata Coetzee's Spys en Drank: Die Oorsprong van die Afrikaanse Eetkultuur (1977), C Louis Leipoldt's Leipoldt's Cape Cookery (1976), and Hilda Gerber's Traditional Cookery of the Cape Malays (1959) to gain a better understanding of the broader context of koesisters. Yes, some of these have a predominantly Eurocentric approach, but Coetzee also credits African contributions and Leipoldt emphasises the Eastern influences. Gerber explains Malay cuisine and how it was influenced by Dutch settlers here.

Claassens discusses the origin of the koeksister in an exclusive Cape-European cultural context as being a Dutch (krullers) and Italian (crispelli) food product, while Gerber exclusively places the koesister in a Cape Malay cultural context, originating from Eastern dumplings.

Samantha Roman's “What Kaaps brings to the table: A sociolinguistic analysis of the intersection between language, food, and identity" in Vannie Kaapse Mense (2019) highlights the religious connection with koesisters; and Cass Abrahams' The Culture & Cuisine of the Cape Malays (1995) says the names are used interchangeably to refer to any version,  “despite the numerous differences noted between the koeksister and koesister in some of the literature, both popular and academic", notes Boraine.

He adds: “By emphasising the importance of food history as a contemporary historical research field, the literature review established a theoretical rationale for a comparative study of the history of the koeksister and koesister as distinct but also uniquely interwoven elements in the South African food history landscape."

It's a mouthful, but then Boraine explains in detail the nomenclature, geographical origin, ingredients, preparation process, physical appearance, serving context and community context of the two food items.

The Koeksister Monument (2003) in Orania pays tribute to the women who helped finance Afrikaner community projects by making and selling these treats. Yet, Boraine also shows how women from both communities sell koesisters for their personal financial upliftment. And even though koesister is a Cape Malay Muslim delicacy, it is traditionally enjoyed on Sundays, including by Christian Capetonians after church.

Similarities and differences, yes, but the conclusion is that koeksisters and koesisters have more in common than what sets them apart. Just like the language communities from which they originated.

Furthermore, both are delicious, so arm yourself with the recipes on

  • Hopefully, a public research article will be published later this year that will provide readers with more in-depth information on the subject.

Die Geskiedenis van Boerekos 1652-1806, Hester Wilhelmina Claassens,,,, “The koeksister: a twisted history?" Rudolph Boraine, University of Pretoria (2021)

♦ VWB ♦

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