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Eating in South Africa – Biesmiellah in Bo-Kaap

May 4, 2011

Prior to our trip to Cape Town, a few of my South African friends and guidebooks I’d read up on, recommended trying the local Cape Malay cuisine. The most well-known Muslim populated area in Cape Town is Bo-Kaap, famous for its colourful, brightly painted houses and of course Cape Malay cuisine. Biesmiellah is the local go-to for this cuisine which has over the years since it was brought to South African shores in the 17th century by Malaysian, Indonesian and Madagascan prisoners and slaves, undergone a considerable degree of adaptation to suit local conditions and tastes. So, I was keen to try out some dishes to explore the differences to Malaysian cuisine.

Biesmiellah serves cheap and cheerful family-style food. As I understand it, as with almost all Cape Malay restaurants, it is strictly Halal and no alcoholic beverages are allowed on the premises. Run by two generations of the Osman family, Biesmiellah has been serving the local Muslim community and increasingly tourists for 20 years. The décor in Biesmiellah is simple and the service no-frills – a little bit like a ‘kopitiam’ in a shopping centre in Malaysia.

The no-nonsense lady who served us was quite accommodating to us tourists and recommended a few dishes to us. She started us off with condiments served to accompany our meal – a rather ordinary plate of vegetables, sweet and sour pickled beetroot and a fiery atjar (curry pickle). The atjar was good with finely shredded carrots, cucumber and bits of cauliflower.

We shared starters of Daltjies – little chilli bites in round balls made from onions, potatoes and chilli dipped in chick pea flour; and moons – tender chicken fillets and corn dipped in breadcrumbs. A little sweet chilli sauce was provided as a dip for both which we didn’t really care for – a little bit like the bottled sweet chilli sauce you get with spring rolls in Chinese restaurants in England.

For mains, I decided to try a Denning Vleis – a lamb stew cooked in tamarind with a spicy undertone. Apparently, the dish originated in Padang, West Sumatra and the name from the Javanese word dendeng (meat of the water buffalo). I was a bit disappointed as I was expecting a really spicy dish but instead, the dish was more sweet than spicy (d’oh, read the menu: SPICY UNDERTONE!). That said, the sweet taste of the spices came together very well with the meaty taste of the lamb which itself was tender and came away easily from the bone. This dish, as tradition calls for was served with mash potatoes topped with nutmeg powder.

K had a chicken curry (back to a little bit of normality after trying springbok and crocodile earlier on during our trip). Looks-wise, it was very similar to the chicken curry you’ll find in Malaysia, cooked with potatoes. It also tasted very similar – not too spicy and proper red from the spices used. The chicken was a bit stringy though.

 To go with our mains, we shared a portion of yellow and orange speckled rice which was cooked with caramelised onions.

The highlight of our Cape Malay meal was surely the oval koesister fritters, dipped in syrup and rolled n desiccated coconut. If I wasn’t so stuffed from the meal, I’d have had another one of these yummy little dough-balls. They were so light and delicious!

Overall, it wasn’t a bad meal at all and though the food generally lacked the punch from the heat of chillies, I’m glad we had a chance to sample a cuisine which emerged from the Malay cuisine that I grew up with. And damn, those koesisters were good…

Price for plates as above including a milo, a coke, a bottle of still water and an optional service charge came to R255 which is about £25.

Biesmiellah is located at No 2 Upper Wale Street, Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa.

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