By Rustum Kozain
The triangle is geometry’s favourite form. Circles, rectangles, squares, trapezia – all are composites of triangles. And the triangle is powerful. In soccer, keeping players in inter-connected triangles is effective as attack and defence.
Some mysticism surrounds triangles. There’s Pythagoras and his hypotenuse. And there’s the Bermuda Triangle.
A triangle can be divided into smaller triangles. Take the Samoosa Triangle. Nationally, one can plot the points of a giant samoosa from Cape Town to Durban to Johannesburg. Apartheid kept the samoosa out of Vrystaat, but Euclideans say things are changing.
Within the national triangle are smaller, regional triangles. And within these, even smaller triangles. Wembley Roadhouse in Gatesville, The Golden Plate in Woodstock and Malay Fast Food in Langmark Straat, say, constitute but one major triangle in Cape Town. Within each shop, the golden tidbit. And so samoosas make up South Africa: a host of golden triangles within triangles, hyper-textual like a web.
The samoosa is the triangle par excellence. It is geometry, mysticism, food and earth science all at once. And it is literary. Proust’s Swann’s Way gets going through the smell of a madeleine, which sets Swann’s memory flowing. Had Swann known the samoosa…well, Proust would still have been writing. Yes, the golden tidbit is primal: deep-seated, evocative, good and bad. When I first learned of a ‘take-home exam’, I thought immediately of a greasy brown paper bag filled with samoosas.
The samoosa was demystified for me in The Planet Cinema, the ‘non-whites-only’ bioscope in Paarl. Double-bill: a kung fu movie and Jaws. ‘Eh! You killed my sister’s husband’s uncle! Prepare to meet the Drunken Monkey!’
Kung fu works up an appetite. In the snack bar you could shove and push to buy anything from dainty Mint Imperials to grilled Masala Chicken. And a loaf of bread with it.
The samoosa was a popular snack. Now, every time I smell samoosa, I remember things past. On the screen, a shark feasting on long pig; next to me, a drunk and his samoosas. With every ominous underwater shot, the drunk made equally ominous sounds: ‘Uh-uh’ or ‘Ô-ô’. More disturbing were his ‘surreptitious’ burps.
Of course, the samoosa burp cannot be surreptitious and my ambivalence towards sharks has little to do with cinematic horror. In the gastric valley, onion mutates and the beast knows no boundaries such as would define personal space.
No, better to be samoosa-eater than -smeller. But pick them carefully, or your friends will visit their wrath on you, no matter how delicate the pop under how delicate a palm.
Avoid that frozen party fodder at your supermarket. Profit-margins for mass-produced samoosas translate into more onions per triangle. And they taste bad. If you have to fry them at home, ask someone to introduce you to Auntie Gadija. She sells them ready-to-fry by the dozen.
But what about a snack on the trot? Crescent-and-star take-outs spangle greater Cape Town, providing access to the national Samoosa Triangle. A few names are legendary. I’ve mentioned Wembley in Belgravia Rd. Then there’s Cosy Corner and Bibi’s, both in Wynberg.
In the City Bowl, some leg-work in triangulating the location of the best emporiums is required. Soulster trigonometry in action. And so on a bright winter’s Wednesday I triangulate through the Golden Acre.
Strange name that, since I don’t notice any crescent-and-star sign that may herald the golden tidbit. It’s all gringo-style diners and burger joints, and I shudder to think my hunger might drive me there. Averting my gaze, I push on through. Destination: the Parade. Castle Street is awash in boerewors smoke. Perseverance.
Lunchtime. Soulsters mill everywhere: mothers and babies, kiddie couples stepping out on holiday from school, office workers, construction workers, pickpockets and shoplifters. The Parade is having its guts ripped out, but the two rows of food stalls are busy. It’s a cornucopia. A teenager dashes into my path, gripping his Gatsby – a two foot long loaf filled with viennas, slapchips and what not. Patrons reach their hands up over the counters. The place smells like manna.
Manna from Malaya. Some dog-kickers landed at the Cape as slaves from what is now Indonesia, part of the Malaysian (or Malayan) archipelago. Soon, everyone who didn’t sniff their food hung out with these magicians and started talking the same taal. Besides, the food was nice. And so was the sex. The Duusman then called all who spoke this taal ‘Malay’. Some wore funny hats. Then came apartheid proper and all Muslims who were not from India were called ‘Cape Malays’ because the planners didn’t want to think. Those who were not called ‘Cape Malays’ were called ‘Coloured’ and so on and so forth.
In elk geval, so was born at the Cape styles of food which I like and which others call ‘Malay food’. True, Auntie Gadija does make better bobotie than Auntie Wilhelmina but, is it in the genes? And so on the Parade I spy some dog-kickers, who should be kneading the rootie dough, actually grilling…my Gawd, a spreadeagled peri-peri chicken. Nou is die Kaap weer Portugees!
I repress my Nando-genes, ask for two triangles at another stall and head out. The shell is thickish, the triangle big as my palm. Just past that golden colour — it’s been in the deep fryer too long. And it doesn’t quite strike the balance between crunch and chewiness, the mark of the samoosa supreme. Mmm…a bit heavy on the onion too. And the mince has the texture of mealie meal. Is soya more expensive than mealie meal? I picked the wrong stall and now I’m having this bad samoosa day. Next time.
I turn northwest, up Darling Street. Then through Greenmarket Square up Burg. I vaguely remember a joint somewhere in Church Street where years ago I introduced a food-sniffer friend to the salomie (curry rolled into rootie, like a savoury pancake). Just a lot of construction going on, none in the triangular shape. The joint’s gone.
Had fancy restaurants been on my agenda, I would have dropped by Bukhara’s, further up Church. North Indian stuff; makes your tastebuds explode with overload. Hallucinogenic. And then there’s Talk of the Town, more curry in Burg Street. But also a restaurant proper. And from here it’s a fair projection to Biesmillah in Upper Wale Street, which does trade in take-aways.
No, back to the square. Peek down Langmark Straat. A red and yellow sign beckons: Malay Fast Food. Two samoosas and a koessieste, and I’m sitting on a bench in St George’s Mall, checking out the buskers. Policemen clip-clop past on sweat-crusted horsies. Panini’s packed with the smooth crew. Vendors vend.
My koessieste is it! This is not the moribund, cloyingly sweet vlegsel you buy at Volkspele. No, this is the light, puffy little ball, mashed potato in its dough. Coated in a light syrup and sprinkled with desiccated coconut. Hints of ginger and cloves. This is the koessieste as opposed to the thin-lipped ‘koeksister’ of opregte taal. And this abandonment shows: for each koeksister you can manage, you can consume a dozen koessiestes and want more.
My samoosa is dainty; three would fit my palm. The shell is impeccably gold; and blistery, like it should be. Minced beef! And a little bit salty, as I like it. And I can taste the dhanya! (green coriander). This is the golden tidbit, the samoosa supreme. Each flavour is distinctly recognisable – dhanya, chilli, cumin, coriander, etc. – but it’s the ensemble that impresses. Next cocktail party, insist they get the stuff here.
Time to go. I triangulate the city hientoe en soentoe, looking for more samoosa. But Langmark has made its mark. Back at Malay Fast Food, I nod familiarly and order my salomie. I triangulate to the Company Gardens, thinking how small the triangle between Langmark, Church and Burg streets is.
The Gardens are full of people. Many hold grease-stained parcels, picnicking on the lawns. I choose my bench and open the parcel.
My salomie is as big as a chihuahua. Which reminds me. The salomie is not unlike the burrito: as tortilla is to burrito, so is rootie to salomie.
In South Africa, two major types of rootie obtain, rootie and roti. The first is found mainly in the Cape, the second mainly around the other two nodes of the Samoosa Triangle. Naturally, with modern transport and all that, both may be found everywhere. My theory, though, is that the superior roti is far more widespread than the rootie.
The dough for rootie is made using cold water, and lots of butter at various stages. The upshot is a flaky, puffy rootie, quite nice, but much too rich. The recommended dosage is one per adult. And they’re not good the day after.
The roti comes from India. Although no certainty exists, it also goes under the guise of the djapati. The roti dough uses hot water and a little ghee (clarified butter). It remains pliable even when cold, and will be so even tomorrow. Adult persons may consume as many as they like.
I have a sneaking suspicion that my salomie from Malay Fast Food is roti, and that bothers me not at all. The filling is evocative, aromatic, beef-mince curry, with soft potatoes yellowed by turmeric. A few peas in there, just to remind your tongue of duller pastimes.
Salomies, on the trot or on the bench, are for soulsters who know hand-to-hand combat. And this is why I prefer minced beef. Chunks of mutton are for home use. On the streets, they get in the way and fall all over the place. With minced beef all you do is open wide, and there you go.
For only R10, Malay Fast Food’s salomie smells like any childhood should, and I’m back in the 70s, before remixes and Reagan. On visits in Salt River, my parents always knew when we had extended our welcome and thus bade our hosts goodbye just before supper time. When, on leaving Salt River, Dad did not turn right off Albert into Voortrekker, we knew one last stop was due before we headed home to Paarl. Way down Albert Road in Woodstock was The Golden Plate (not to be confused with The Golden Dish).
Well, The Golden Plate’s still there. On inquiry I am told it’s been in the same family (Hassan) for the past 40 years, after it was bought from another family. The golden tidbit outlives apartheid!
One of the legendary take-outs in Cape Town, The Golden Plate’s open until 3.30 a.m. weekdays, 5.00 a.m. over weekends. It has a regular clientèle, from Argus night staff to nightclubbers from all over Cape Town. In fact, revellers have been known to drive from Paarl at 1.00 a.m. for a chicken or two.
I go the whole…erm, hog: samoosas, chilli bites, salomie, and jalebi (a bright orange, sweet delicacy made of deep-fried dough). A layby along Liesbeek Parkway should do, with its disconcerting mix of nature and waste. At Hartleyvale, hockey players hock as I bite into my samoosa. Not as good as Malay Fast Food. But good enough. In fact, the second one tastes much better. And the salomie loses its daunting size the minute I taste it. It’s gone before the first gull lands at my feet. Like any fast food, it’s oily, but who cares. I’m a consenting adult and at R7.50, my brain buzzes with endorphins. I wonder which team’s keeping their triangles intact.
* Many people may not realise that apartheid did not allow South Africans of Indian descent to remain in the Orange Free State for more than 24 hours – thus the joke that we had a national samoosa triangle, the Free State being excluded.
 With more demographic and economic changes, there are now small Halaal take-out joints in the Golden Acre. There is also a small grocery shop catering to the needs of immigrants from Francophone Africa.↩
 Malay Fast Food, alas, is no more; unsure about Talk of the Town. At the time, I was unaware of Mariam’s, which is now quite popular and which makes excellent food. There are also now Egyptian-owned food joints, further signs of changes in the makeup of the city centre.↩
This issue, released in April of 2009, features words and images on the Third World project and links, real and imagined, between Africa and South Asia. Contributors include Vivek Narayanan, Manu Herbstein, Amitav Ghosh Mahmood Mamdani, M. Neelika Jayawardane, Martin Kimani, Shailja Patel, Girija Tropp, Neo Muyanga, Binyavanga Wainaina, Pravasan Pillay, Andile Mngxitama , Naeem Mohaiemen , Tsuba Ka 23, The Speculative Archive and many more.