Smoorsnoek: From Cape Town With Love

The recipe. 

I met Dullah more than 20 years ago. He was selling secondhand books at the Grand Parade in Cape Town. He was a quiet, composed Cape Malay man with a thick mop of unruly silver hair. Through him I met Margret. She must have been in her fifties back then. Diabetes had already taken most of Margret’s eyesight so she was mostly home bound. But this meant that Margret spent many hours at the stove in the Kotze family kitchen, and it is there that I discovered the joy of Cape Malay food.

Over the course of two years the three of us grew quite close. With Dullah, I’d play the pick-six every Saturday during the horse-racing season and with Margret, I’d visit the food and spice shops from Woodstock to the Bo-Kaap. I’d watch them grow slimmer and go quiet during Ramadan and paint their room every year to celebrate Labarang.

I bought my first ever cookbook from Dullah. He was a book salesman employed by Cranfords Book Store in Long Street, the largest secondhand bookstore in the southern hemisphere at the time. I found it where Dullah said it would be: right on the top shelf next to Leipolt’s Cape Cookery. Hilda Gerber’s Traditional Cookery of the Cape Malaysfor the humble price of R12,50. I remember looking down from the top of the wobbly ladder to where he was standing, smiling at me. He was good that way. Dullah was the ultimate reader, not of books but of people and I was always amazed at how good he was at introducing people he has never met, with books he’s never read.

Colourful Bo-Kaap, Cape Town

The first dish Margret taught me was smoorsnoek. This dish is very easy to make and a well loved favorite at traditional Cape-Malay weddings.

Traditionally, a motjie-kok does all the cooking at these weddings and other women would assist her with menial tasks such as peeling, chopping and cleaning. Custom also dictates that she would do the cooking for free but in exchange could ask the family for a favor which could not be refused. This non-monetary exchange relationship, called kanala-werk, dates back to time of the slaves.

There are many varieties of this dish. Some add sliced cabbage. Others call for salted snoek instead of smoked snoek. In this case the salted snoek should be soaked in water for an hour at least and the water changed at least once. If you like a more colorful variety, add a handful of chopped red peppers.

Or you could add some chopped suring just like Hilda Gerber tells us Old Miss Jacobs who lived off-Vinyard Rd, Claremond would have done all those years ago.

The Cape Town of those days is long gone now – Cranford’s Book Store closed down and I have lost touch with Dullah, Margret and the Kotze’s many years ago. But the spirit of the motjie-kok and her kanala-werk remains as strong as ever.

Notes:

  1. The Cape Snoek or Thyrsites Atun, is a member of the snake mackerel family (Gempylidae). It is most commonly found throughout the cold waters of the southern hemisphere in the form of large pelagic schools. It is a resilient, fast growing species with unpredictable migrations (snoek-runs), which protects them from over fishing. As a result, it is on the SSASI green list of sustainable fishing.
  2. A motjie-kok is a very good Cape Malay cook. She is often asked to cook at big events such as funerals and weddings.
  3. Allspice is also known as “Wonderpeper”, Jamaica Pepper or Pimenta. It is the dried, unripe berries of the Pimenta Dioicatree native to Central America and southern Mexico. The name “Allspice” originated with the English during the early 1600’s who thought the berrie combined the tastes of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
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