Home Institution

Wellesley College

Publication Date

Fall 2015

Program Name

South Africa: Multiculturalism and Human Rights


This study explores the construction of Cape Malay identity through the lens of food. Made up of descendants of slaves from India, Madagascar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mozambique, and other places, “Cape Malay” is a very contentious identity. Although people who fall under the label of Cape Malay today are hundreds of years removed from their slave ancestors, there are still distinct remnants of these origins in Cape Malay culture. One of the ways in which this is most evident is Cape Malay cuisine. Cape Malay dishes such as bobotie, samosas, bredie, and beryani have become staples in South African food and all have clear slave roots. However, although many elements of Cape Malay cuisine can be traced back to India, Indonesia, and other places where slaves came from, it is more than the sum of these parts: it is evidence of the unique and particular Cape Malay identity.

In this project, I use a combination of secondary research, observations, and very informal interviews with people who identify as Cape Malay about their identities to explore the extent to which they feel connected to their slave heritage. I look at Cape Malay identity through the lens of food, as food is a universally important marker of tradition and culture. Through my research, I find that although there are many aspects of slave ancestry that can be found in Cape Malay culture, Cape Malay people today identify more with their distinct South African identity rather than with their slave heritage.


African Studies | Anthropology | Community-Based Research | Ethnic Studies | Family, Life Course, and Society | Race and Ethnicity | Sociology of Culture