• Eunice Stoltz

Heritage in a koesister

Bo-Kaap, Western Cape

Many South Africans will tell you a koeksister is a golden brown, sticky, drenched in sweet syrup, twisted dough that will leave you craving for more, or have you on a sugar rush in seconds. It is a traditional South African dessert or tea-break snack known to many, especially Afrikaans South Africans, such as myself.

But today we journey through the history of Cape Malay cuisine and the famous koesister. Spelled without the second ‘k’. Koesisters have a unique story exclusive to the Bo-Kaap, in the Western Cape. With its soft golden brown texture and piquancy taste it will leave you craving for more - but without the risk of a sugar rush.

I went to the Bo-Kaap to find the famous chef Faldela Tolker, whom I met in 2016 while roaming the streets in the Bo-Kaap. Like our first encounter, I came unannounced, and again Faldela opened her door and invited me in. But this time we went for a walk, to visit Aunty Rhodi, ‘she will tell me the history of the koesister’.

Faldela Tolker


“Since I opened my eyes, koesisters were there”

Rholda Kassiem, known as Aunty Rhodi, was born in 1952 in the Bo-Kaap and grew up with a grandmother who was a baker.

The traditional recipes Aunty Rhodi was taught, was handed down generations and is to this day the recipes she uses to bake and what she teaches others to bake.

“Everything we know today is from our people, generation to generation.”

Aunty Rhodi and Faldela Tolker, Bo-Kaap, Western Cape

To understand where the koesister originated from, Faldela briefly explains the history of Cape Malay in the Bo-Kaap.

“Cape Malay cuisine is a mixture of when slaves from Java, India, and Madagascar came to South Africa. As they entered the country the women cooked with their own various ingredients. While the men each had their special skills and trade, so did the women had their own unique way of preparing food. I would make curry different as to how the women next door make it.

“So what happened was the women would all come and cook together. And so Cape Malay cuisine was born: the koesister, the biryani's, the curries, the akni’s…”

Faldela adds that in their cuisine there is something of everything. When you sit down at lunch or dinner, it would represent various tastes from various countries.

“The koesister is a dessert from Java, while samosas are an appetizer from India.”

Roughly explained; it’s a burst of flavors from around the world, allowing each culture to cook and eat as they were taught a generation to generation.

Back to the koesister.

Traditional koesister with the coconut in the middle, and coconut flakes, sprinkled on the plate

The koesister is originally from Java, an island of Indonesia, bordered by the Indian Ocean on the south and the Java Sea on the north. What makes the koesister distinctive is the spices it contains; ginger, cinnamon, aniseed, and some even cardamom. Depending on your preference koesisters also contain a pinch or two of dried and finely ground naartjie peel.

Both Aunty Rhodi and Faldela emphasize the various methods used when preparing koesisters.

“You get the koesister with potato that Aunty Rhodi makes, you get koesisters without the naartjie peel. I even made a koesister with chocolate in one day” - Faldela.

The way koesisters are displayed also differs from each other. The modern way koesisters are displayed is by sprinkling shredded coconut flakes around the koesister, while traditionally the coconut flakes are boiled with sugar and water and placed in the middle of the koesister.

According to Faldela, recipes over the years modernized and does not taste the same as traditional cuisine.

Aunty Rhodi recalls the memory when she was young, and sitting in her grandma’s bakery she licked out a can of jam when the can cut her left cheek. To this day she carries the mark, and to this day she prepares koesisters the traditional way.

"As it was made by our great-great-great-grandparents, from the land of Java"

Both Aunty Rhodi and Faldela invites you to visit the Bo-Kaap to taste the original koesister. Faldela is a registered tour guide and chef in traditional Cape Malay cuisine. Attend a cooking class with the skilled Faldela in her Cooking with Love-kitchen. Contact her at faldelatolker@gmail.com