The Glorious, Humble Vetkoek

You can make it to. 

Like so many other Namibians, my childhood was filled with vetkoek (literally transl. – Fat Cake). So when a dear friend called one Friday morning at a time normally reserved for a family crisis, I was transported to that little green kitchen in Keetmanshoop.

“Do you perhaps have a whisk I could borrow?” she asked. “I have to bake vetkoek for my son’s school today, and I have no whisk”. It was about then that I noticed the panic in her voice. She has never baked a vetkoek in her 40-odd years on this earth even though she had eaten plenty of them.

A few minutes later she emerged from the car with two bags of ingredients and at that point it became clear to me, the whisk was just a front. I mean, who would bring their ingredients from their car when they’re only stopping to pick up a whisk? She was here for help, not utensils. And at that moment I entered that little green kitchen again.

I could see Ouma Maatje wearing her home made blue apron with the floral motive standing over a large pot with bubbling oil transferring balls of dough from a tray on the table into the pot and golden balls of vetkoek from the pot onto another tray. She was a short yet large woman, with a gentle smile and many a kind word. On the wall to the left where she was standing was an ancient coffee grinder mounted to the wall and the smell of freshly ground coffee mixed with the smell of the freshly fried dough. 

The fact that my dear friend had in the meantime poured herself a second cup of coffee and had not mentioned the whisk again, made it clear I was gonna have to get my hands dirty. So much for tripping through the green kitchen in Keetmanshoop …

Although regarded as ‘traditional’ to this part of the world, the vetkoek made it’s way over from Holland way back yonder. It arrived with the Dutch settlers as an “oliekoek” or “stroopkoek”, which was a fritter made from a sweet dough and mixed with fruit such a raisins and apples and nuts – particularly almonds.

Once fried, the “oliebolle” were dunked into syrup or dusted with sugar. Exactly when and for what reason the “oliebol” recipe was changed from a sweet to a savory dough is unclear but Claassens in the her book Die Geskiedenis van Boerekos 1652-1806speculates that it is likely that it was developed as a substitute for bread.

Traditional Vetkoek

Interestingly enough, the Dutch also took the “oliebol” to North America where sometime after the British took over and Fort Amsterdam’s name was changed to New York, it became the doughnut.

A few days after our friend left with nearly 3 kilograms of traditional vetkoek dough to acquire her new title as the school’s vetkoek queen, the conversation around the kitchen table returned to the memories of vetkoek.

Over a cold beverage served in a tall brown bottle another friend explained the “laat-sien-vetkoek”. In his cultural enclave less than 100 kms south of our capital city, the “laat-sien-vetkoek” is something special: a vetkoek so glorious that it stands out from all the other vetkoeke at the funeral.

One that draws everyone’s attention to you – the maker of something so glorious that everyone forgets their bereavement for that moment when they bite into it. Daai een wat almal vir jou laat sien (transl. – the one that makes everyone see you).

The recipe that follows is borrowed from Pieter Veldsman and although it looks complicated, I assure you it is not. It’ll be worth it, just ask our new vetkoek doyenne. For my “laat-sien” version, take some bone-dry biltong (literally transl. – jerky) and smash it with a hammer and great determination on some old newspaper until it is a rough powder (off course you could buy it powdered from some biltong shop, but it would not be nearly as much fun). Add the biltong powder to the batter and fry away.

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