Spices are the words with which Cass Abrahams tells the bittersweet culinary tale of her adoptive Cape Malay community and she is determined that the world should know, and taste, their rich and delicious history.

Did you know?

Cass is short for Cassandra and Cashiefa is the Muslim name chosen when she converted to Islam.

Cass Abrahams, best-selling cookbook author, chef and entrepreneur, was born a Christian, of German and Xhosa extraction, in Johannesburg. When she married into the Cape Malay community, and converted to Islam, she discovered that the key to acceptance lay not in religious and social conformity, but in a woman’s command of her cooking pots: 'Any woman worth her salt in this community can cook. So I quickly learnt to cook.'

The culture of the Malay community is inextricably couched in its recipes, some dating back 300 years. They are jealously guarded family heirlooms. 'When an outsider requests a recipe it is often given with an essential ingredient or step missing', explains Cape chef Cass Abrahams, 'so I began to steal with the eye.'

During the socio-political unrest of the 80s, Cass Abrahams took a sabbatical from teaching, opting for a job as an in-store promoter for an American rice distributor. Preparing beryanis, bredies and boboties, Cass embarked on what would become her life’s journey, and gain her international renown as an expert on the gastronomy of the Cape Malay community.

Her first cookbook, The Culture and Cuisine of the Cape Malay’s soon followed and her reputation as the doyenne of Cape cuisine snowballed. Cass Abrahams, chef, has run a string of acclaimed restaurants, and written a follow-up cookbook called Cass Abrahams Cooks Cape Malay from Africa.

'My passion is food with history,' she explains, and the irony behind some of South Africa’s best-loved dishes is not lost on her. 'Under apartheid rule, Afrikaners were claiming bobotie to be the archetypal Afrikaner dish, when its roots were actually with the Malays.'

With Cass Abrahams to tell the real story of our culinary heritage, South African food never tasted better.

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Best buys

'Cass Abrahams Cooks Cape Malay' (South Africa Metz Press) 'The Culture and Cuisine of the Cape Malays' (South Africa Metz Press)