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THE FOOD WE ATE.  11. Koesisters  [9min read]  

Never could Sunday breakfast be better than a koesister or two with one’s coffee and favourite people.

Rainbow nation house colours in Bokaap’s Cape Malay Quarters on Signal Hill.

The last few blogs have covered some heavier material. So it’s time for a bit of wholesome sustenance.

Of course we need to get the semantics correct, yet again. So, there’s the plaited koeksister which is of Dutch/Boer origin. Tasty, of course. Then there’s the Malay koesister – minus the second “k”. That’s what this blog is about!  Our Asian ancestors formulated what today is known as Cape Malay cuisine. Those of us familiar with Indonesian or Malaysian food, know that spicing and coconut are quintessential ingredients of their food.

How I loved those mornings when I went to buy Sunday morning breakfast. We had two different vendors. One was a street away down a narrow lane in amongst a cluster of shanties – one could follow the spicy aroma trail to the low door where cash was swopped for koesisters and placed in a brown paper bag which would be lightly stained with the frying oil by the time one got home.

The other vendor was from another Muslim family who lived in a large stand-alone shanty at the northern end of Dale Street. One of the older women wore a thin black veil which covered her hair and face. This was long before the hijab, niqab and burka became a right-wing, over-hallucinated threat to security. She was the only woman I ever saw who had the full facial covering in my time in Cape Town. She limped, possibly a remnant of polio, the ancient scourge.

We enjoyed the products from both vendors and tended to alternate our purchases between the two. The spicing of the two vendors differed, but we enjoyed the product from both suppliers. Both places cooked on their Primus stoves and one could only imagine the logistics of these cottage industries in their little homes.

One ran or cycled back salivating to tuck into two of the coconut smothered doughnuts at home. Coffee never goes down better than after a mouthful of the cinnamon-flavoured treat, especially on a cold winter morning. It intrigues me how our koesister memories are related to winter. These days, I make them as a winter treat over a weekend. AND I am allowed more than two!

As a spectator, I loved buying them at our rough-and-tumble local Saturday rugby games which was played on the open field behind our house. These were wild matches, fights were frequent, so there was lots of action. Competing vendors walked the side-lines selling their warm koesisters covered in their baskets. Even without coffee, they were an indulgence to savour. How I hated those days when I did not have a tickey [three-penny bit] to indulge in one of my favourite sweets.

Like bread, it needs yeast and a period for the dough to rise. The spices added can include cinnamon, cardamon and aniseed. I have a KISS style, so it’s cinnamon only. Cinnamon is an interesting spice in that too much of it is not necessarily a bad thing. If aniseed is your thing, by all means, go ahead, but it’s not for me. Plain flour will suffice, but many recipes add potato to their mixtures.

People said that the potatoes make the doughnut “lighter”. I never understood that until I recently made a batch of rather firm koesisters. I threw them away and then repeated a fresh batch a few days later with potato mash added. What a difference! It seems the mashed potato can render them less firm – almost like weakening the bond between the flour particles.

I would say , now, that I will never again make koesisters without mashed potato. If you use the ready made mash potato flour, then make sure that the salt content is low or salt-free. Otherwise, use one medium-sized potato to two cups of flour. I’ve been told to use all purpose flour, if available – thanks Suraiya!

After frying the little doughnut, they should have the shape and size of a small potato. It is then necessary to place them in a gently bubbling sugar syrup mixture for 2-3 minutes. Too hot and your syrup will become toffee!

Some people add dried naartjie [mandarin] peel to the syrup. Again, that’s not our style. Add ginger pieces instead, and it will sing for you!

The final bit is to sprinkle the warm delight with coconut after removing it from the syrup. I like the coarse, ground stuff myself. Maybe even a mix of the coarse and fine ground will add extra visual appeal. Regardless, it will go down well with that essential morning coffee. It’s not too bad with tea either!

A good tip is that one can freeze the fried koesister in a plastic bag or container and then just sugar a few at a time over several weeks. The sugar-ginger mixture left-overs can be kept in a container in the fridge. If you keep a few sugared koesisters in the fridge, microwave for a few seconds and it’s as good as new.

We have an ancient Kenwood mixer – weighs about as much as a lawnmower, but it still churns out fantastic dough with its hook. Just love using it and has been a faithful kitchen assistant for decades. It will probably outlive me!

So, what’s my recipe?

6 cups strained flour – less if you wish to make a smaller amount; e.g halve all the ingredients.

Potato mash – allow 1 potato per 2 cups flour; or 1/2 cup powdered instant mash potato; it should be unsalted. Yes, I made that mistake

⅓ cup sugar

1/2tsp salt – if you must. Can do without if you are watching your BP

1-2 pkt instant yeast – does not need pre-rising except if you want to know if it is still active or not by adding it to a bit of sugar in warm [NOT hot] water

2 heaped tsp ground cinnamon – like a pinch of salt over the shoulder, I always add more for luck

1 egg or “no-egg” powder; 1Tsp oil; 30g butter -skip or reduce these if your cholesterol is an issue   3 cups warm 50:50 water+milk mixture [includes soy or oat milk as needed]

Action time!    Crank up the Kenwood and mix ingredients thoroughly to form a soft, smooth dough. Cover with a tea towel and let it rise for about 1- 2 hours in a warm place/warm oven. The process can be speeded up by placing the dough in a warm oven after heating it at 180 degrees for 5 minutes. Close the oven door, and it will speed up the rising time of the dough. Do NOT overheat or the yeast will be killed.

Once risen, coat the hands with dry flour and roll a small handful of dough into an oval or round shape.  I like oval. Set aside on a floured surface; cover them to rise again.

By now you may palpitate a bit – it’s time to deep fry until golden brown. FRYER BEWARE! It fries very quickly so don’t burn them. Keep oil temp down and test with a small piece of dough. Turn for uniform browning. Allow the fried koesisters to drain excess oil on a paper towel. Yesteryear’s vendors used newspaper – that might have added more spice to the mixture depending on the news of the day.

Now I start to salivate. The end is in sight. The family members are crowding around, coffee at the ready. It’s almost time to add the koesisters to the syrup.

Boil 4 cups sugar in 4 cups water. Add a 5cm length of ginger cut into fine strips. After a slow boil, the syrup should be slightly sticky when it runs off the spoon.

I take orders for those who want a syrup-infused koesister – that’s when it’s at its best. Punch holes in the doughnut with a big fork or sharp knife – the more holes, the sweeter they will be. Take care. Too many holes and it will fall apart. Health warning: It’s NOT for diabetics!

Slow boil them in the syrup for about 2 minutes and place in a bowl before sprinkling with the desiccated coconut and serve them while still hot. Tea or supplementary coffee are essential complements.

There are the weird few who may not want any coconut [go figure!], so I leave a few aside for my daughter before I add the coconut for the rest of us.

We are a food-loving family, and these Sunday breakfasts evoke some of our best moments when we were together. I suspect that there will be a koesister moment in the near future when we meet up again.

So, have a go at the recipe. All comments are welcome.


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