It’s said that the koesister derives its name from the sound of gossip shared between friends. In the Western Cape, it’s a Cape Malay family tradition to serve these pillowy, spice syrup–infused, coconut-dusted doughnuts on Sundays, accompanied by milky tea and chatter. Often, you’ll find outsiders like me bursting into Rose Corner Café in Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap neighborhood, greedy for the same privilege. Their fresh, hot koesisters are typically sold out long before I get there.
The treat is occasionally spelled “koeksister,” with a K, but that’s frowned upon by purists, as this is also the name of the plaited doughnuts made by Afrikaners. Those resemble Indian jalebi in texture and are syrupy-sweet, but this is a different pastry entirely, and as far as the phonetics go, the middle K is dropped in the Cape Malay dialect. These koesisters are flavored with a combination of aniseed, dried naartjie (mandarin) peel, ground ginger and cardamom, and translates roughly, to “cake sister.”
When we consider the food of the Cape Malays, such as koesisters, it is worth noting that it isn’t Malaysian in the slightest. In fact, the Cape Malay natives have their roots in Indonesia, Batavia, Sri Lanka, and Madagascar. The name Cape Malay is derived from a sea trade language that was spoken at the time. Slaves from these countries were brought to work at the developing Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch in the mid-17th century, and were all lumped under the term “Malay,” or Malays of the Cape. Today, the descendants of the Cape Malays have adhered to two aspects strictly—their Islamic faith and their food culture.
The candy-hued buildings of the Bo-Kaap stand out in Cape Town’s landscape. Photo by
This is especially true for the members who remain in the Bo-Kaap, with its candy-colored former council homes; mosques, including the Auwal Mosque, the first one built in South Africa; and the iconic spice store, Atlas Trading. Recipes have been passed on and held in secrecy from generation to generation. Since their arrival, Cape Malay cooks manned the kitchens of Dutch, later English and Afrikaner homes, and left an indelible impression on the cuisine of the Western Cape, in dishes like bredies (stews), langsouskos (sauce-based dishes that take a long time to prepare), and the love-it-or-hate-it bobotie (a dish of mince topped with a savory custard and served with raisin-flecked yellow rice).
The koesister tends to be a hefty sweet treat—a chewy doughnut without a hole in the center. If you can’t find dried mandarin peels, use any sweet citrus fruit that resembles mandarins. After frying, the doughnuts are dunked (while still warm) in a sugar syrup, which is sometimes flavoured with cardamom, and then rolled in a bowl of desiccated coconut. Cape Malay cooks will tell you that it must be eaten while warm.
You can (and should) make koesisters at home, to tide you over until your trip to Cape Town. Photo by
Delicately spiced koesisters are usually made in large sizes, as generosity is a big part of Cape Malay culture—but you can modify the serving size to your liking. Some cooks add mashed sweet potato or plain spuds to the dough, as every Cape Malay family has their own version of the recipe. In these parts, for many homes, Sunday tea would be incomplete without a plate of warm koesisters to share.
Cape Malay Doughnuts (Koesisters)
- 4 large potatoes (mashed), peeled and chopped
- 1/2 cup milk, plus more if needed
- 4 tablespoons butter, melted
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 1 packet dry instant yeast
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 2 teaspoons ground dried or fresh mandarin or orange peel
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed
- Vegetable oil for deep-frying
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup white sugar
- 2 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
- 1 teaspoon dried mandarin peel
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Desiccated coconut for dredging