A Spice Odyssey
Life-long affinity for spices is infused in the pages of Cariema’s new cookbook, writes Louise Liebenberg
Growing up in the Bo-Kaap, heartland of South Africa’s Cape Malay cuisine and culture, set in motion a life-long affinity for spices which Cariema Isaacs has carried with her across the waters to her current home in Dubai.
The author of Cooking For My Father in My Cape Malay Kitchen has brought out a new cookbook cleverly titled Spice Odyssey, in which she evocatively explores the essence of spice and its ability to gloriously transform even the humblest of meals.
“I cannot imagine a world without colour. Similarly I cannot fathom a meal without spices!” she says in the introduction to the book.
Isaacs grew up in Schotcheskloof in the Bo-Kaap but has been a regular visitor to Port Elizabeth for many years. She was in the Bay earlier in April to speak about Spice Odyssey at a signing event at Exclusive Books, and in 2018 also shared her journey and presented community workshops here after Cooking For My Father became a hit.
Growing up in the Bo-Kaap set Isaacs on a path of celebrating traditional cooking and the togetherness it brings. As with her first book, many of these memories are shared in the pages of Spice Odyssey.
“My affinity and adulation for spices emanate from my Cape Malay heritage and the rich legacy left behind by my forebears who hailed from Indonesia, Java and Malaysia,” she says.
When it comes to Cape Malay cooking the real secret is finding the correct balance, she shares; “dishes are spicy but not fiery hot”. Her career coupled with a love of spice would take her around the globe and Isaacs has lived in Dubai with her husband, Turhaan Samodien, and sons Tawfeeq and Tashreeq, for some years now. However she is the first to confess she misses home – South Africa – “all the time”!
Try these recipes from Spice Odyssey.
Isaacs says the fruity and dense Boston loaf is her mother’s favourite, whether eaten at breakfast or as a tea-time treat. It is best topped with a good spread of butter.
Mixed spice, also called pudding spice, is a British blend of sweet spices not unlike the pumpkin pie spice used in the US, Isaacs says.
“Cinnamon is the dominant flavour, with nutmeg and allspice. It is often used in baking or to complement fruits or other sweet foods.
“The Dutch version is called ‘koekkruiden’ or ‘speculaaskruiden’, which also contains cardamom.”
1½ 1/2 cups (375ml) pitted dates
¾ cup (200ml) boiling water
1 tsp (5ml) bicarb
1/2½ cup (125ml) sultanas or raisins1 cup
(250ml) boiling water
150g butter, at room temperature
1½ 1/2 cups (375ml) cake flour
1 Tbsp (15ml) baking powder
60g brown sugar1 tsp
(5ml) mixed spice
1 tsp (5ml) ground cinnamon
pinch of salt
2 Tbsp (30ml) treacle
1 Tbsp (15ml) golden syrup
1 Tbsp (15ml) honey
1 handful chopped walnuts
Place dates, boiling water and bicarb in a bowl and set aside for 30 minutes.
Soak raisins in the boiling water for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 180°C.
Drain dates and place them into a blender.
Blitz until they transform into a puree or paste.
Place the date puree, butter, eggs, flour, baking powder, sugar, ground spices, salt, treacle, syrup and honey in the bowl of an electric mixer and mix on a slow/low setting for about one minute.
Use a spatula to mix all the ingredients thoroughly, ensuring ingredients at the bottom of the bowl have been fully incorporated.
Drain the sultanas or raisins and add to the cake batter.
Turn speed up to high for about 10 seconds to give the batter a final mix.
Allow batter to stand while you line a loaf tin with baking paper.
Fold the walnuts into the batter.Transfer the batter to the lined loaf tin and bake in the oven for 1 hour 10 minutes.
Isaacs usually checks the Boston loaf at this stage and insert a skewer into the centre.
If it comes out slightly wet, then bake for a further five to 10 minutes.
Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for 10 to 15 minutes before turning out on a wire rack to cool.
Cut into slices and serve with butter.
Gabiebah's vintage Cape Malay tea
This recipe is dedicated to her dear friend and “soul sister”, Gabiebah Brown.
“I stayed with her and her family in Port Elizabeth when I was still studying and completing my practical work experience with Spoornet,” Isaacs says.
“At the time I was living away from home, with a family I didn’t know at all, but I came to love them deeply – so much so that the tears and melancholy I felt when I returned home to Cape Town took months to disappear.”
“Gabiebah would come home every night from work to cook supper for us and along with it came her signature cup of tea.”
Isaacs adds cardamom to the recipe because she says it reminds her of a time when her grandmother used to make tea for the family in Bo-Kaap in the Cape Malay Quarter.
“Now that we find ourselves miles apart, when I do have a chance to see Gabiebah, the first question I am asked is: ‘Want a warm cup of tea’?“ If only she knew how profound that question really was.”
The recipe makes four cups of tea.
3 cups (750ml) water
4 green cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
4 tsp (20ml) black tea leaves, heaped or 6 tea bags of Five Roses or Twinings English Breakfast tea
1 cup (250ml) low-fat milk
¼ cup (60ml) condensed milk
Pour the water into a deep saucepan on high heat.
Add cardamom and cinnamon, and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to medium, add tea leaves or tea bags, and allow to boil and infuse for at least two minutes.
Reduce heat to low and add milk and condensed milk.
Brew for about three minutes on a very low heat.
Switch off heat and allow brew to infuse for a minute or so, then strain and pour into cups or mugs.