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10 minutes with the spice queen, Cass Abrahams

The highlight of Cass Abrahams’ foodie career was when she received lifelong membership of the Chefs Association of South Africa (‘without having any formal training!’). With a personality as zesty as her beloved spices, this specialist in Cape Malay cuisine grew up in Halfway House in the 1960s – but she didn’t learn her skill from her family.

‘Nobody cooked back then. Even my mother couldn’t cook to save her life!’ she laughs. ‘It was only when I got married and saw the passion for Cape Malay cooking in my husband’s community that I knew I had to learn how to cook like them… and better.’

Her chief inspiration was her mother-in-law, and Cass spent ‘lots of time in the kitchen and hours reading food books’, all of which no doubt paid off. She has cooked all over the world, consulted to numerous restaurants and authored two exceptional books: The Culture and Cuisine of the Cape Malays and Cass Abrahams Cooks Cape Malay: Food from Africa.

She’s worked as a teacher, a caterer and a home economist and, while she jokes that she’s ‘not getting any younger’, Cass shows no signs of letting up. She recently set up a restaurant at historical Zomerlust in Paarl, where she also offers cookery courses.

‘My personal motto is that nothing comes easy – if you want anything, you have to work for it,’ she smiles.

What makes SA cuisine unique? Our historical background and the melange of flavours contributed by the different South African ethnic groups. From Dutch to Malay to San, it’s all there!

Your favourite SA foodie destination? Emily’s restaurant in Cape Town serves cuisine that never fails to excite me. Owner Peter Veldsman is my guru. Early in my career I felt deeply insecure because I didn’t know all the French terminology, but Peter took me aside and told me rather sternly that it’s the passion that counts.

Most iconic SA brand? Boerewors, of course! And Mrs Ball’s chutney. The two are at their best when eaten together.

What’s your foodie secret? I have a gift for blending and balancing spices: cassia with cloves, cardamom with pepper, garlic with ginger… yin and yang.

Your dream dinner guests and what would you cook for them? I love to cook for people who appreciate food, and I’d make typical South African food with a strong Cape Malay influence. One person who really appreciates my food is Helen Zille – for her I’d cook a nice curry. I’d also invite Trevor Manuel, who would get briyani, and former president Nelson Mandela, for whom I’d make tomato bredie and pap.

Five ingredients you could never do without? Saffron, garlic, chilli, cumin and coriander. I couldn’t possibly prepare briyani without them!

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