September 6, 2019

Traditional South African Foods – The Koeksister

With Heritage Day around the corner, we are looking at some of our favourite South African treats and traditional dishes. Here in The Rainbow National we are lucky to have such diverse cultural groups, each one with their own unique and tasty cuisine.

For many South Africans, tea time isn’t complete without a something sweet on the side and koeksisters are one of the most popular sweet treats. This plaited doughnut is literally dripping in sticky syrupy goodness and will leave you with sticky fingers for the rest of the day. Dough braids are fried in hot oil and then plunged into ice-cold syrup to obtain their characteristic taste and texture – the outside is golden and crispy, and the inside is soft and oozes syrup. Definitely not for the poor souls on diet, you know this is something you have to have in moderation but sometimes it is too hard to resist. 

The koeksister’s origins are not exactly clear, but it is generally believed to have originated from a recipe brought to the Cape by Dutch settlers in the 17thcentury. Koeksisters are not to be confused with the closely named but distinctly different Cape Malay treat koesisters, of Malay/Indonesian origin.  These are more cake-like than koeksisters, slightly spicy, covered in coconut with a dumpling shape.  

Just like the manner of their intertwined-ness structure, koeksisters are closely intertwined with the identity and heritage of Afrikaans South Africans. They have been lovingly made from family recipes for years, not only to be enjoyed at home, but for markets and bake sales as fundraising for churches, schools and orphanages.  

The koeksister became a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation in Orania in 1995. Nelson Mandela traveled here soon after he became President to have afternoon tea with Mrs. Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of the former Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd. It was under Verwoerd’s leadership that Mandela was imprisoned, and he implemented many major racist policies that expanded the apartheid system. And what sweet treat did Mrs. Verwoerd, a self-respecting Afrikaans lady, serve with tea that afternoon? Koeksisters, of course. This humble plate of koeksisters they shared showed that Mandela wasn’t simply speaking about reconciliation and forgiveness, but actually acting on it. This monumental and symbolic occasion is recollected in the book Hunger for Freedom: The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela. And in it you can even follow Mrs. Verwoerd’s recipe to try and make your own.