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The Cariema Isaacs Interview

Updated: May 29, 2023

Leanne Feris asked Cariema about her new cookbook, her writing process and life in Dubai.

Modern Cape Malay Cooking is food author Cariema Isaacs’ latest cookbook. Read on to find out more.

Leanne Feris: You wrote your first cookbook, My Cape Malay Kitchen, as a way to grieve for your father. This was followed by Spice Odyssey in 2019 and Curried in 2021. You’re on a roll! Please tell us about the catalyst for your new cookbook, Modern Cape Malay Cooking.

Cariema Isaacs: I found myself smack in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic while writing the manuscript for this book, where travelling home to Cape Town had become vastly challenging and the longing for family, friends and home food intensified. The only thing that could diminish the ache I felt during this time was cooking, or writing, and since I am deeply drawn to both, the manuscript for Modern Cape Malay Cooking unfolded. Soon after I started writing the manuscript, my mom passed away. The only way to preserve her legacy was going to be through this book, and you’ll “feel” her domestic goddess persona emanate from the pages of this book.

LF: What can we expect from your new cookbook?

CI: This cookbook is a celebration of food and feasting, and provides a contemporary view of Cape Malay cuisine and the simplicity of home cooking. The recipes in this cookbook define Cape Malay home cooking and showcase a fusion of flavours that redefined the modern Cape Malay palate.

Though traditional Cape Malay cuisine and recipes have stood the test of time, there have also been adaptations that have given rise to a culinary fusion. These adaptations could be

anything from what the Cape Malay millennial generation craves these days, or the substitution of ingredients to accommodate health and dietary needs, to the culinary influences that richly contributed to the Cape Malay palate over time.

My grandmother taught me to measure when cooking and baking, and that consistency is key; this way a recipe is preserved in its purest form.

The younger Cape Malay generation yearned for more of the popular dishes from the East and West – a comforting pasta or quick-and-easy stir-fry – but with a Cape Malay twist. By “twist” I mean it must be spicy, it must be saucy, and it must be packed with flavour! The new generation also brought with it a flurry of food bloggers who continue to inspire our culinary fare by telling their stories of food and heritage, depicted through vivid photography and sophisticated food styling. Also, since most Cape Malays follow the Islamic faith, it’s also essential to understand the sacred context behind the preparation of our dishes.

I would also like to dispel this foolish notion that Cape Malay cooking is free-form (the ideology that measurements are not used), and that we call on our ancestors to tell us when to stop adding a pinch of this and a spoonful of that – it is horribly inaccurate. My grandmother taught me to measure when cooking and baking, and that consistency is key; this way a recipe is preserved in its purest form.

LF: How do you keep things different and fresh with each new cookbook?

CI: I do a lot of research; I look at current food trends; I speak to a lot of my foodie friends and spend hours in bookstores rummaging through all sorts of cookbooks. I am also determined that every cookbook of mine has a different story to tell, and being well-travelled allows me to write about my experiences and the cuisine I get to sample in the countries I travel to.

LF: What makes for a good recipe?

CI: A good recipe is one that has been tested and retested. Measurements need to be accurate, and subtle nuances that make your recipe unique should be explained or mentioned as a tip. The method or instructions need to be simple but clear. Mention substitutions where possible, because the ingredients found in South Africa might not be available in another part of the world.

LF: Your favourite dish?

CI: Cauliflower bredie and Kool frikkadel!

LF: Your favourite ingredient?

CI: I couldn’t possibly choose one, but if I was to choose, it would be two ingredients that my ouma in Bo-Kaap cherished: salt and pepper! The older generation of Cape Malay cooks crafted dishes like salt-and-pepper pot roast chicken, chops, steak, or sausage. Traditionally the seasoning used for our Labarang boud (Eid leg of lamb) is salt and pepper – nothing else is needed!

LF: For those not in the know, what is a ‘dabba’, and what should every kitchen have in its ‘dabba’?

CI: A dabba is an Indian spice box which is filled with spices. I have two masala dabbas. The one contains curry and biryani spices, i.e.: turmeric, leaf masala, ground cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, garam masala, biryani masala and chilli powder. The second contains spices for seasoning bredies, roasts, grills, and braai marinades, i.e.: spicy paprika, lemon pepper, black pepper, cloves, all-spice, nutmeg and chilli flakes.

LF: What is your process when creating a cookbook – from when you have the idea, all the way to holding the printed book in your hands?

CI: Firstly, all credit goes to my publisher and the publishing house I work with, because not every idea can translate into a cookbook. I love that I have a group of people who guide me through the process from start to finish.

Once I have an idea, I start working on an outline, chapters, theme, etc. and put all of this into a publishing proposal template. Once done, it is pitched to a publishing committee, who essentially reviews it and gives you a “yay” or “nay”.

After that, it’s all systems go! It takes me about eight months to write a manuscript and I become extremely disciplined during this time. Since I work full-time, I do most of my writing on the weekends and at least one to two hours per day or night.

The irony is that I often write the postscript first, which is at the end of the book. The introduction is next, and then I write intros for all the chapters of the book. The recipes, even though defined, are written last. I also do a lot of research and referencing when I write and therefore, the bibliography is pretty much a signal that I have completed the manuscript. I also write in spaces that will spur on my creativity – spaces that have lots of light! When I am in Cape Town, I tend to sneak away to The Vineyard hotel and stay for hours just to write.

It takes me about eight months to write a manuscript and I become extremely disciplined during this time. Since I work full-time, I do most of my writing on the weekends and at least one to two hours per day or night.

Once the manuscript is completed, it is handed over to an editor and for all my books, I have chosen to work with only one editor. She understands my writing, feels the emotion, and will challenge me when something just doesn’t make sense. It’s also during this time that I start working with a design manager for the layout of the book, and again I am fortunate that it is someone who understands the brief and can bring my writing to life.

The next part of the process is the most intensive for me since I do my own food styling and my husband, Turhaan, does the food photography. This requires hours of preparing food, then styling it, shooting, and finalising prints. All of this eventually gets placed into the design template and I usually provide input on whether I want to make any changes to the font, colour, layout, etc.

Finally, the cover of the book is shot last. Sometimes it gets done in one take; other times it needs a few attempts to get it right! The design manager usually provides me with an author’s review, which allows me to make slight changes (if any) but by this time, the book is literally ready to go to print.

Nothing compares to seeing one’s work go from black ink on white paper to a kaleidoscope of colour that tells such a vivid story! I cannot describe the immense gratitude I feel whenever

I see my books in bookstores, or when I Google them. It is just surreal to me!

Many people believe they have a book to write – be it a cookbook, memoir or novel. What advice would you give them, both about the writing process and the publishing industry?

It’s important to know that you are writing simply for the passion of telling the story. Don’t focus on whether your book will change the world, change someone’s life or be a bestseller. Just focus on telling your story. Stay true to who you are.

I chose a publisher that I have chemistry with and a publishing house that respects my work. I am never left out of any part of the process. Ensure that you are clear about what you want, even when it’s down to the colour of the blue you want to see on the cover! The devil is in the detail.

LF: You call Dubai home, but Cape Town has your heart. How long have you lived in Dubai, and why did you choose to make it your home?

CI: I was born in Bo-Kaap and lived in Cape Town for a large part of my life. I was immersed in the culture. I grew up knowing only Cape Town, so I feel like this is a heart print. I am the sum of all of my parts – I would not have come this far without the foundation I was given in South Africa. Cape Town is where my life started and I honour that, always.

Dubai has been my home since 2010. An opportunity arose with the company I work for currently – they needed a project manager for a project that was implemented in South Africa.

I was also separated at the time, and I felt like my stars were aligned; I needed a fresh start, and it came in the form of a work opportunity. I think God knew I needed a bit of fairy dust and desert sands, and the rest is history.

LF: Tell us about life in Dubai – what are work life, home life, and playtime like?

CI: I love living in Dubai and I think much of it has to do with the fact that I am Muslim. It felt like an easy transition, which brings me back to my previous statement: God knew what I needed. Work is exhilarating in the sense that as a woman, I have never been treated like I didn’t have a seat at the table. I often find myself in boardrooms, where I am the only woman, and my opinions and input are never diminished, and I genuinely feel respected.

Home life is a balance of creating a haven where my family retreats to when the world is chaotic, to cooking and creating dishes I can style, and my husband, Turhaan, can photograph. These are often used for blogging or just to unwind.

Playtime for me is when I go out to meet friends, dine out, have braais in the desert and socialise. Playtime is also spending time at the beach during the slightly cooler months.

LF: How are expats treated by the locals?

CI: In Dubai, we are residents since you cannot get citizenship in United Arab Emirates. There is nothing that I can personally complain about – my experience here has been nothing but positive. I have many Emirati friends and colleagues whom I adore – all of them friendly and welcoming. I have to say, I have had the same experience in most of the Arab countries I have travelled to, where locals welcome you with the Arabic hospitality of “Ahlan wa sahlan”. It means: ‘You’ve come to stay with family’. How could I not want to stay?

Instant Pot recipes for Eid

Buy the Autumn 2023 issue of Koe'sister magazine at any of these stores, or order yours directly from us.

Plus: these recipes for an Instant Pot leg of lamb and biryani, from Modern Cape Malay Cooking, will have lunch for Eid sorted in a jiffy.


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