I have been making koeksisters for the McGregor Market for more than six years having last made them in the early 1990’s. At that time, I thought they were horrendously enormous and occasionally trotted them out with tea or as a dessert.
Fast forward twenty or so years: the world is much more health conscious than it was then, and
not having a sweet tooth coupled the new understanding of sugar addiction, I decided to make little ones. It’s a decision that’s stood me in good stead.
Traditional Afrikaans cookie
For international readers, let me explain: a koeksister is a deep fried pastry. There are two types of koeksisters in South Africa; both are a sweet, deep-fried confectionary. One has Malay roots and is traditional in the “coloured” community and is rather like a spicy doughnut that is rolled in coconut and colloquially known as a “koe’sister“. The ones that I make have Dutch roots and are traditional Afrikaans fayre; drenched in a syrup.
Of course, for an immigrant rooinek* to make and sell them in the shadow of the Dutch Reformed Church, is one thing. To hear ‘n regte, egter boer and person of real, genuine Afrikaans farming stock, or a “coloured” person say that my koeksisters are “delish!” or better still – “they taste like home” – is a source of some pride!
* literal translation of rooi nek is red-neck – the derogatory term for the pith-helmeted English soldiers whose necks would get sunburnt during the Anglo-Boer war (Source).
A little etymology on the side
I did a bit of research as I was perfecting my product, and one of the things that I learned is that there is no such thing as a “koeksuster”. Every search engine I used, chucked up “koeksister”. So, the literal translation of the name cannot be “cake sister” – a common misconception. Even in South Africa – I’ve given up disabusing some folk about it.
What I found out
The Afrikaans word for “sister”, one’s fraternal female sibling, is suster. It turns out that the “sis” is alliterative: omdat hulle so ‘siss’ as hulle in die warm oilie en koue stroop gesit is. They siss when they’re frying in the hot oil and still sizzling, dropped into the icy syrup.
My recipe is based on a book given to me, nearly 30 years ago, in a past life. It was also my first ever South African cookery book. A few years ago, I was looking for a do-it-all local book for a friend and discovered that it was still in print! What a delight to find my basic South African culinary Bible – the perfect gift for that occasion.
I have, of course, made a few minor (I suppose that depends on perspective) adjustments, i.e. butter instead of margarine, slices of fresh ginger and whole cinnamon instead of the ground-up stuff.
Good game played slow
Making koeksisters is a morning’s work. Not only must the dough rest, but the cutting and plaiting of anywhere between 24 and, in my case 52-odd koeksisters, is a game most definitely played slow. It’s a labour of (mostly) love that I do at least every other Friday – ahead of the market.
A little more debate
Koeksisters do keep (and freeze) well – for as much as a month – because the sugar is a natural preservative – as are both the ginger and cinnamon. If you don’t keep them cold and eat them quickly, they do lose their slight crunch. Once they’ve cooled, completely, seal them into the container to and put them in the fridge or a chiller – the cooler the better. Over time, their flavour improves as they draw in cinnamon and ginger syrup. Well, mine do – because I leave them in the syrup.
There is no consensus: do koeksisters taste best fresh and crispy on the outside and soft on the inside? Or, softer, more flavoursome and dripping in syrup?
This is the third iteration of this post. The first was in about 2016, not long after I started blogging. The second was last year and was one of the posts that disappeared when my earstwhile host absconded – with all the posts I’d written over that year. This, third (hopefully lucky) post is part of the process of revising, updating and sorting recipes so that they’re more accessible and printable. For me, as much as for anyone who wants to use them.
The significance of three and five-oh
The McGregor Saturday morning market has been a defining feature of my week for the last seven or so years. Fridays are always kitchen days. Saturday mornings are occupied (winter or summer and when it’s dry – which is most weeks because we live in a rain scarce region) with packing things up, and heading down the road, setting up, selling and then returning home for brunch.
South Africa’s lockdown meant that for four months,
my the week had no shape.
The market’s resuming, just on two months ago, was interesting. Suddenly we had to take steps to control numbers and access to our little “precinct”.
We were surprised when, two or so weeks ago, there was a queue of people waiting to come in. Fifty patrons? We were gobsmacked. We had no idea that we ever had as many as fifty patrons at one time. Ever. Let alone more. Or during level 3 lockdown.
Just last week, I hit a personal milestone. September, a year ago, and because I discovered I had a number of repeat marmalade customers,
who nagged and because I had sold out, I started keeping track. Very old fashioned and low tech.
I had sold fifty jars of marmalade in a calendar year.
Here’s the thing: for more than a quarter of that year, we have had no markets. It’s only at the market, or direct from home, and with no real marketing or promotion, that I sell marmalade. This month (September) alone, I have sold ten jars. Four just this Saturday. To a repeat customer. They are best customers.
That’s not all – the third five-oh
Although we are in the sixth month of a national state of disaster – also known as Covid lockdown – South Africa moved to level 1 a week ago. The number of people testing positive for the corona virus seems to be dropping and the country’s recovery rate is at 90% (a discussion for another time). It was also a long weekend so the village was full of visitors – hoping to enjoy spring weather. There was, however, a momentary return of winter. That said, there was a more than healthy turnout at the market.
For the first time in more than a year, the entire batch of fifty-odd koeksisters sold out.
Perhaps rather apt to have sold out of a traditional or heritage food as this is the weekend during which South Africa celebrates its complex and diverse heritage.
Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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