Curry is the story of South Africa on a plate

'Curry: Stories and Recipes from across South Africa' shows that curry is as close as SA comes to a national dish

19 October 2017 - 00:00 By Shelley Seid
Vimla Ragavan's lamb head curry.
Vimla Ragavan's lamb head curry.

Whether it includes a layer of grilled ripe bananas, box spice or six tablespoons of sugar, curry in all its iterations is as close as South Africa comes to a national dish.

That's the discovery made by journalist and food writer Ishay Govender-Ypma who travelled the country collecting curry tales and recipes.

Her new book Curry: Stories and Recipes from across South Africa has recipes collected from South Africans in all nine provinces.

"I learnt that profiling a South African curry as a single entity is a futile task," she says. "It's as complex and interesting as the many people who make up our land."

While migratory patterns influenced the profile of curry to a great degree with two distinct pockets emerging - one in the east (KwaZulu-Natal) and the other in the west (Western Cape), other versions of curry have "transmuted" to include most sections of the population, from ekasi curries to coloured curries and Afrikaner curries.

"Everyone seems to have a version," says Govender-Ypma, "especially with the freedom of movement in the past 25 years."

She cites the Free State as an example. "When I studied there in 1997, there were no Indian takeaways.

"When I went back for the book, 20 years later, things had really changed."

The foreword is written by Zuleikha Mayat, founder of the Durban Women's Cultural Group and the driving force behind the iconic recipe book Indian Delights.

Mayat writes: "With Ishay, we can travel through South Africa and note how taste buds of diverse ethnic groups have been captured by curry through its many manifestations.

"It displays how curry inveigled itself into the gastronomy of South Africa."


Vimla Ragavan is known in her extended family for her lamb's head curry (pictured above), that includes barlotti beans as well as potatoes and brain. It is added at the end of the cook.

Ragavan, a retired maths teacher who grew up in Merebank, KwaZulu-Natal, says: "We used to buy sheep's head and trotters - it was called a 'set'. There was a special at the weekend and we would share it with the next-door neighbours. We did the outdoor prep together."

Hloki Sebola, lives in Haenertsburg, Limpopo, and is known for her beef curry which she sells at the local market. She says she picked the recipe up from her husband.

"He just made it up one day. The ingredients he bought in Pretoria. You can't get them here. If he forgets to bring them, then we have to call anyone coming from Pretoria to please get us these spices."

Her curry includes fennel seeds, star anise and cardamom pods as well as two tablespoons of mild curry powder.

Hloki Sebola is known for her beef curry at the local market.
Hloki Sebola is known for her beef curry at the local market.
Image: Ishay Govender
'Ma' Inez Espost's banana kerriesous.
'Ma' Inez Espost's banana kerriesous.
Image: Jurie Senekal

Capetonian "Ma" Inez Espost remembers a day in the mid-1960s when her husband came home from Epping market with a crate of 144 bananas. She had to make a plan. She found a recipe in Die Burger dated May 4 1962 for frikadelles (meatballs) with a curry banana sauce.

It called for a single banana - "Ma" Inez added six. "We loved how the curry sauce turned the traditional bleak frikadelle into something so exotic," says her daughter Errieda, "like Joseph's coat of many colours."

• This article was originally published in The Times.