Up, on the slopes of Signal Hill, in a picturesque neighborhood of colorful, old Cape Town homes, was an amazing neighborhood, Bo Kaap, the Malay quarter, home to the mostly Islamic descendants of slaves from modern-day Indonesia and Malaysia, who’s arrived here nearly 300 years ago.

Indonesia was my home last summer, so up the hill I went, to see if anything here resembled what I’d seen then. Few here had even been to Southeast Asia, having been disconnected for generations. In some ways, I was a bridge, connecting two worlds.

After visiting the small, informative but sparse Bo-Kaap museum, I followed the recommendation of the attendant to a Malay restaurant at the top of the hill. I opened the menu, wondering if anything would resemble the dishes I’d loved in Southeast Asia.

Instead, I was surprised to see numerous Indian-esque dishes, along with other with Afrikaans names. But it made sense. Indian slaves came alongside the ones from Southeast Asia, and Afrikaans was the dominant language of “colored” peoples, under which “Malays,” as they were referred to, fell.

I choose one of the Afrikaans dishes. The attendant looked remarkably similar to the lighter skinned Malays I’d met while in Kota Bharu six years ago, with soft skin, and large, friendly eyes.

“Good choice, that is my most popular dish,” she said.

Minutes later, I was treated to a feast – a salad with three different types of pickle and dressing, and the main dish.

“It looks wonderful,” I said, “is this a typical Malay dish?”

“Yes,” she said, then, reading my mind, continued, “In Indonesia, this dish is made with water buffalo.”

“Really?” I said, intrigued, “do you know what it is called there? I spent some time in Indonesia.”

Her eyes sparkled.

“Is that so,” she said, “well, when we came here, many items changed. There, they use water buffalo, but here, there are no water buffalo.”

“Oh,” I said, trying to remember if I had water buffalo in Indonesia.

“There, they use lots of coconut milk, no?” she asked. Here I was, answering questions about Indonesia to someone of Indonesian descent.

“Yes, they do,”

“Here, we can’t, so we use…turmeric, tamarind, and other ingredients,” she said.

“There is no coconut milk here?”

“No,” she said, smiling, as she walked away.

Immediately my mind flashed back to that time. Food is, I’ve learned, one of the most resilient forms of culture. Imagine coming to a faraway land, where the food is dramatically different. No water buffalo, no coconut milk, no nutmeg. So you experiment, and try different ingredients. In the end, you get something unique, yet, something that still connects you to that faraway place that you are from.

My dish was wonderful – a lamb stew simmered in a sweet, tamarind onion sauce, served with saffron basmati rice, with a side of sweet, tomato and onion sambal. It had Malay, Indian, and South African influences, and was nothing like anything I’d had last summer in Indonesia, but it wasn’t the result of an intentional fusion, but as the result of necessity, in a time where things were far different than they were today.

After eating, I went to the Slave Lodge, a new museum documenting the history and livelihood of slavery in the Cape Colony, where I gazed upon a memorial of reflection, listing the official names of those forced into slavery. They were forced to take last names that merely said where they were from. While other glanced at the tall, white pillar with rotating cylinders, for some reason, I couldn’t move. All that remained of these people, and their suffering, was a simple name.

Pasi Van Bali

Doole Van Bugis (Sulawesi)

Pantsiko Van Cheenes (China)

Nalk Van Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

According to a nearby map, slaves even came from Madras, the city where my maternal grandfather and grandmother’s family came from. Perhaps, across the eons of time and fortune, one of these names was connected to my own being. To my own journey across the world, on this day, to this place.

I’ve realized, after coming to other places like Cape Town, like Bo Kaap, that humanity is a species on the move. We have a common history of coming from far away. Every one of us has an ancestor that, at one time, took an amazing journey, far from his or her land of birth, to a new place. Some voluntarily, others, like the ancestors of the friendly Malay lady serving me, involuntary, but in the end, it makes little difference.

It is that journey, and how it defines our humanity, that I seek when I travel myself. To understand the world, and the people in it.

Free weekly roundups, straight to your inbox


Asia Undercovered: Get the stories on Asia that mainstream media doesn’t cover.




You've signed up! Please check your email to confirm.