How to Make Spiced Doughnuts from South Africa (Cape Malay Edition)

October  5, 2017

It’s said that the koesister derives its name from the sound of gossip shared between friends. In the Western Cape, it’s a Cape Malay family tradition to serve these pillowy, spice syrup–infused, coconut-dusted doughnuts on Sundays, accompanied by milky tea and chatter. Often, you’ll find outsiders like me bursting into Rose Corner Café in Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap neighborhood, greedy for the same privilege. Their fresh, hot koesisters are typically sold out long before I get there.

Photo by Ishay Govender-Ypma

The treat is occasionally spelled “koeksister,” with a K, but that’s frowned upon by purists, as this is also the name of the plaited doughnuts made by Afrikaners. Those resemble Indian jalebi in texture and are syrupy-sweet, but this is a different pastry entirely, and as far as the phonetics go, the middle K is dropped in the Cape Malay dialect. These koesisters are flavored with a combination of aniseed, dried naartjie (mandarin) peel, ground ginger and cardamom, and translates roughly, to “cake sister.”

When we consider the food of the Cape Malays, such as koesisters, it is worth noting that it isn’t Malaysian in the slightest. In fact, the Cape Malay natives have their roots in Indonesia, Batavia, Sri Lanka, and Madagascar. The name Cape Malay is derived from a sea trade language that was spoken at the time. Slaves from these countries were brought to work at the developing Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch in the mid-17th century, and were all lumped under the term “Malay,” or Malays of the Cape. Today, the descendants of the Cape Malays have adhered to two aspects strictly—their Islamic faith and their food culture.

The candy-hued buildings of the Bo-Kaap stand out in Cape Town's landscape. Photo by Wikimedia Commons / SkyPixels

This is especially true for the members who remain in the Bo-Kaap, with its candy-colored former council homes; mosques, including the Auwal Mosque, the first one built in South Africa; and the iconic spice store, Atlas Trading. Recipes have been passed on and held in secrecy from generation to generation. Since their arrival, Cape Malay cooks manned the kitchens of Dutch, later English and Afrikaner homes, and left an indelible impression on the cuisine of the Western Cape, in dishes like bredies (stews), langsouskos (sauce-based dishes that take a long time to prepare), and the love-it-or-hate-it bobotie (a dish of mince topped with a savory custard and served with raisin-flecked yellow rice).

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The koesister tends to be a hefty sweet treat—a chewy doughnut without a hole in the center. If you can’t find dried mandarin peels, use any sweet citrus fruit that resembles mandarins. After frying, the doughnuts are dunked (while still warm) in a sugar syrup, which is sometimes flavoured with cardamom, and then rolled in a bowl of desiccated coconut. Cape Malay cooks will tell you that it must be eaten while warm.

You can (and should) make koesisters at home, to tide you over until your trip to Cape Town. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Delicately spiced koesisters are usually made in large sizes, as generosity is a big part of Cape Malay culture—but you can modify the serving size to your liking. Some cooks add mashed sweet potato or plain spuds to the dough, as every Cape Malay family has their own version of the recipe. In these parts, for many homes, Sunday tea would be incomplete without a plate of warm koesisters to share.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Panfusine
  • Fran McGinty
    Fran McGinty
  • Ishay Govender-Ypma
    Ishay Govender-Ypma
Ishay is a former lawyer, now a freelance food and travel photojournalist, delving into all aspects of culture. Author of Curry: Stories & Recipes across South Africa. She's fascinated by what makes us human.


Panfusine October 10, 2017
Had these over 20 years ago while at Grad school at U. Cape Town, You just made my heart flutter with pure Joy with the nostalgia. Thank you Ishay.
Ishay G. October 11, 2017
Ah, lovely memories. If you ever do try 'em and walk down memory lane again, do let us know! Thank you.
Fran M. October 5, 2017
This sounds so flavorful I hope I have the chance to make it.
Ishay G. October 5, 2017
Thanks Fran. You can adjust the spices too and play around - why not allspice and a touch of nutmeg too? Enjoy!