The first time I met boeber I had an auditory hallucination; a softly strummed flamenco guitar, gently weighted piano keys and Roberta Flack singing “the first timmmmmme….. ever I sawwwwww your faaaaace…”. I was entranced, the room began to shimmer and a single tear spilled over my smiling, slurping cheeks. When it was finished and I returned from transcendence I was dropped like a sack of Irish potatoes into my own culinary history. One tragically devoid of anything even remotely resembling boeber. The closest thing I had to call on would have been strawberry milk syrup IF I had had the ingenious innovation to dump a cup of tapioca pudding in it. Which, as anyone reading this who has ever tasted boeber would have to agree, would pale in comparison. Emphasis on the pale because once one's lineage has been homogenised by *whiteness, their culture becomes capitalism and their cuisine boils down to whatever can be commodified and/ or appropriated from traditional cultures that have developed flavour combinations over long periods of time.
Case in point, boeber’s journey to and through Cape Town. In the late 1600's when the VOC was establishing the Cape as a trading post pit stop, they used the resistors to Dutch occupation of the East Indies to provide the slave labour for the Dutch settlers "given" land. In exchange for their land the settlers were to farm said land and stock the passing ships with the fruits and grains of their labours. Well, the slaves' labours. A large population of craftsmen, artisans and activists were exiled to the Cape from various Dutch military conquests and anti-Islam campaigns including Indonesia, Malaysia, India and East Africa. The term Cape Malay was used to describe a broad scope of cultures forced into servitude to Holland's merchant capitalist aims.
Bubur was the Indonesian translation of congee, expressing the Chinese influence in Malaysia and Indonesia as the spice route brought these places, along with India, into trade. Bubur/ congee describes a porridge-like consistency and the word would be further ammended with a descriptor according to what the other ingredients were. Bubur ayam is a chicken dish while bubur sagu is a sweet coconut milk dessert made with sago. The sweet, spicy, milky, tapiocaness of bubur sagu is probably the closest ancestor to boeber in flavour and texture. As the dislocated people of Malaysia and Indonesia rebuilt their lives on the Cape, access to ingredients adapted the recipe; coconut milk was replaced with cow's milk as they would have had to rely on the European style agriculture imposing itself on the land around them. Trade routes North to temperate zones where coconut trees thrived were not accessible to a people whose movements were dictated at every turn and so buber became boeber, same flavour profile parentage but with a new chapter of ingredients.
The translation took root, re-planted and nurtured by an emerging culture forced to find comfort in community in a violently oppressive place far from their varied homelands. Through the strength of their traditions, boeber remains a clear representation of its Indian and Asian ancestry. In today's Cape Town, you cannot buy it in any old store or restaurant, though you can buy pre-packs in grocery stores that service the Cape Malay community. They don’t taste the same as boeber made from scratch, not by a long shot. So how is made-from-scratch-by-mom/auntie/grandma boeber standing up against western consumerism? It survived the slave trade but will it survive neoliberal capitalism? I have to wonder how many millenials have taken up the boeber making torch for their family gatherings?
The agricultural industrial complex identifies and commodifies foods fit for profit. Thus shippability, package-ability and shelf life eclipse taste, mouthfeel and comfort in the assessment of a foods worthiness. So if say sago (a key component in boeber’s texture) is used less, it is purchased less and thus grown less and then one day you just can’t find sago in the shops anymore. Or the alternate ending to this story which has sago being used in a trendy food (as happened with Collared Greens when Whole Foods claimed it was “the new kale”) and all of a sudden you can only get Woolies brand sago at an over-inflated price putting it out of economic reach for those who created it's need in the first place.
My collaborator-in-crime Zayaan Khan has grown up with quite possibly the best boeber on the planet. If Zayaan's life is a testament to what good boeber can do for the world then we may have found a way to end global conflict. Her mother Gadija learned from her mother who learned from hers and has now been responsible for two subsequent generations of good people. Seriously folks, I swear its the boeber. But, as Gadija tells me, when and how Boeber is consumed has changed. No longer reserved for special family occasions, like many cultural traditions, it is seeing itself transformed by modern living.
Gadija and I began to explore what it would mean to share her boeber beyond her immediate family. Our conversation was fuelled by an urgency caused by the trendy "artisanal" food movement whose ground zero was within walking distance from her home. This translates for Gadija as a justified fear of Cape Malay foods being gentrified in time with Cape Malay neighbourhoods. A very popular ice cream outlet in Cape Town, The Creamery, having already released a cardamom rose flavour... coincidence? Maybe... It is possible that its owner has lived in Cape Town her whole life and never once eaten Cape Malay food, tragically very possible as Cape Town remains one of South Africa's top three most racially segregated cities. That said, it is within one's right to wonder if it wasn't "inspired" by "local flavours" which is food trend talk for white owned food businesses monopolising on the traditional foods of Cape Town's marginalised communities; taking foods cultivated over many generations and making them fit for kitsch and the tourists that love that shit.
Gadija lives in Woodstock, in her husband Rashaad’s family home that has stood there through apartheid and under constant threat of systemically sanctioned theft. Woodstock, first inhabited by Khoikhoi who were hunted off the land by Dutch colonialists who then made the area a fashionable sea-side suburb was eventually heavily industrialised with the extension of the harbour and train lines. Due to this industrialization it remained a "grey" area when neighbouring communities like District 6 were bulldozed into "all white" status during Apartheid. It took years of uncertainty before Rashaad was able to secure the empty lot and extend his family home to house his and Gadija’s own growing family. And through all those years of anxiety and frustration on top of the challenges of everyday working family life, boeber was there, warming special family occasions as a reminder of the nobility of their ancestry.
Cultural or “traditional” food, like music and art, is not just about feeding the belly. It is speaking to a history of a community, what they have been through together, where they have travelled together. Its an emotional language expressing the true story of a people’s experience on the planet, all of the nuance that gets left out of history books is revealed by these subtler passages through the body. To have one's culture distorted for profit cuts deeply. The resulting pain and frustration of exploitation may be a slower and duller pain than the one caused by an eviction notice but the intent of dispossession by the dominant culture is the same in both.
When i told a friend of mine who grew up with his mom’s boeber (the very same boeber responsible for my aforementioned auditory hallucination), about Gadija's plan to start a boeber business, he was less than enthused. He said he would be saddened to see boeber in a shop, out of context and separate from the buzz of a family gathering. So on one end is his wanting to keep it secret, like a treasure map to his comfort zones and on the other is the reality that Woodstock residents and their culture are under swift gentrification by developers; real estate agents and “foodies” alike.
The evictions have been happening, the clashes between hipsters and long time local residents have begun and in many cases have already been won for where there are young white professionals, a Woolies is soon to come. Communities dispersed have less opportunity to come together and be comforted with their cultural norms as they become but one household in a melting pot of economic struggle. The homogenising power of the quest for capital can kill a cultural tradition in one generation. Still, resistance is anything but futile and boeber has proven itself resilient; surviving displacement, limited access to ingredients, the criminalisation of the communal celebrations that called it forth from so many bustling kitchens and even earlier attempts of appropriation. Just as we allowed ourselves to wonder at the story behind The Creamery's flavour combination, we can also wonder at the process behind the Dutch Afrikaans' creation of melkkos and melksnysals, two strikingly similar-to-Boeber dishes adopted into their culture under different names that were perhaps ever so slightly adapted to suit their, dare I say it of course I do, blander and sweeter European tastes.
The names may keep the traditional culture’s food at arms length from the dominant one's, as one must assume was the intention, but the food itself and how its flavours were communicated in the days before cookbooks let alone online food blogs, reveals the common source. As Momofuku's David Chang says Different cultures may use different media to express those base patterns—with different ingredients, for instance, depending on what’s available. But they are, at heart, doing the exact same thing. They are fundamentally playing the same music. By now, generations down the line, young South African Afrikaners that grew up on melkkos have the same nostalgia and comfort conjured by it as Gadija’s grandkids do for boeber. The emotions translate across cultural divides even if the story of how it got there remains obscured. And so I am still left wondering, who will make boeber in future generations and for whom?
Gadija can't see the future but she can see phantom repeats of the past in her periphery. As her neighbourhood starts to change, as the new cafe down the road with its shiny barista machine moves in where the old spaza shop used to be. Gentrification being much harder to resist because neoliberal capitalism is less forthcoming with its political platforms than totalitarian governments are. There isn't one unified "enemy", no group to protest against. The "thems" are soldiers of Fortune, an army of individuals devoting their lives to the acquisition of wealth by any means necessary. In varying degrees of fucked (I'd say about 50) even the rosy cheeked ice cream shop owner would have to work pretty hard to not qualify as a "them".
So how does Gadija proclaim those flavours as Cape Malay before a German owned B&B in Bo Kaap does? How does she explain to a distracted population that the beautiful combination in their mouths courtesy of The Creamery’s rose cardamom ice cream has a name? That its called boeber and it has survived over 300 years of oppression and appropriation? That it holds deep spiritual and emotional meaning for her, her family, her community? That its no accident that it tastes SO FUCKING GOOD and makes the sweetest love to your insides?
Her instinct is to share it and let the boeber speak for itself. I am exploring alongside her, contemplating how to effectively engage in Capitalism without sacrificing the true, hidden value of my own creations to its greezy mechanisms. There are very few sign posts to follow save for the driving inkling that to share one's self, one's vision of the world in such a way that another can receive it in its entirety undistorted, is akin to offering them a taste of your full story; something to be savored and swallowed whole.
*white as defined by Theadore Allen in his work " Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race "
A Recipe Ode to Culinary Appropriation
-use money to produce a television show that has you travelling the world tasting traditional foods from a variety of cultures
-open a restaurant with the money you make charging horribly processed food companies and chain restaurants to advertise on your show.
-design a menu "inspired" by the various flavour combinations you tasted on your travels, use the word "fusion" a lot.
-make even more money from all the foodies that are desperate to pay for the overpriced fare at either your London, Paris, Milan or Dubai locations.
-use your money to pay high end escorts to hold you while you cry at night.