Carrying a tray draped with a damp green lappie (cloth), the burly 60-something in a red shirt and a cricket hat weaves his way through traffic. As he walks, he shouts, “Forty rand a bag. Forty rand a dozen.” I pull over, fork out the cash (US $2.87) and rip open the bag.
It’s hard to drive past a bag of koeksisters — plaited golden doughnuts that are almost impossibly crisp on the outside, slightly chewy on the inside and slathered in way-too-sweet syrup. They’re especially hard to resist when made by husband-and-wife duo Arno and Hannelie Arpin, who’ve been peddling their wares at “robots” (South African for traffic lights) in the unflashy Cape Town suburb of Goodwood for 26 years.
Koeksisters are the only symbol of Afrikanerdom I can swallow readily — although their cloying sweetness means one is always enough. When Nelson Mandela visited the privately owned, Whites-only enclave of Orania in 1995, Betsie Verwoerd — widow of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the nasty piece of work behind apartheid — served him tea and koeksisters. Eight years later, Orania’s councilors erected a grotesque 6.5-foot koeksister statue: concrete proof that bigger is seldom better.
The word koek means “cake” in Afrikaans.
Just one letter separates koeksisters from koesisters, their spongier, spicier, non-plaited Cape Malay cousins. The two names are so similar, says South African culinary historian Errieda Du Toit, “because they arose from the same kitchens” more than three centuries ago. Scouring the cookbooks of yesteryear has exposed Du Toit to “many, many lovely stories” about the delicacies’ origins but no definitive truth. All she can say for sure is that the word koek means “cake” in Afrikaans, and that sister might be a reference to the close bond between sisters or to the “sissing” sound the dough makes when it hits the hot oil.
The differences between the two versions are easier to explain. “The Dutch descendants were very good bakers,” resulting in the Afrikaner version with its crunchy crust, says Du Toit. Thanks to their wizardry with spices, Cape Malay cooks, descendants of slaves brought from the east, gave koesisters their own identity.
Fast-forward to 1993 when the Arpins –- recently married and struggling to make ends meet on their government salaries — first tried their hand at making koeksisters. Once they were happy with the crunch of their dough and the density of their syrup, Arno started hitting the streets near their home, selling the treats after work and on weekends. Soon the side hustle was bringing in so much dough that the Arpins decided to quit their desk jobs, and to immediate success. “I had 22 jobs before this one,” says Arno. “But now I’m happy.”
Almost seven days a week for the past 25 years, the Arpins have followed the same discombobulating daily routine. In the afternoon they mix the dough (at least 50 pounds of flour, water, margarine, eggs and baking powder) before leaving it — and themselves — to rest. At 1:30 am, their day begins, with Arno plaiting at least 100 dozen koeksisters and Hannelie frying them, 20 at a time, for 12 minutes each. After dunking them in ice-cold syrup (another 50 pounds of sugar, lemon juice, water and a secret ingredient) and bagging them, it’s almost 11 am, time for Hannelie to stock up on ingredients and clean the kitchen and for Arno to pound the pavement. He mostly works at Giel Basson and Nathan Mallach, a fairly busy intersection — he likes it because the nearby VW dealership allows him to store his coolers in the shade and out of the way of thieves.
It’s hard work, says Arno, but “at least you can see what you’re working for.” Case in point is regular customer Johan Roos, who stops his Toyota to buy a bag shortly after I do. Roos has diabetes, so he buys the twisted sisters for his wife and kids. “Every now and then I sneak a bite,” he admits. “It’s worth the sugar spike.”
Get Some: Arpin Koeksisters
- Where: You’ll find Arno at the corner of Giel Basson and Nathan Mallach from 11:00 am, Monday through Saturday and most Sundays, until he’s sold out of koeksisters. If you can’t find him, give a ring at 27 (0)83 737 0538.
- How: Koeksisters are best eaten on the day of purchase. Alternatively, store them in the freezer and allow three minutes to thaw — all that sugar means they don’t freeze solid.
- Tourist cheat: If Goodwood is not on your itinerary, Karibu Restaurant (in the tourist trap that is the V&A Waterfront) sources its koeksisters from the Arpins — although you’ll pay more than 40 rand for a dozen.
- Trade secret: The crunchiest (and, in my opinion, best) koeksisters are made with baking powder. That said, staunch traditionalists swear by yeast, as baking powder wasn’t invented until 1843. No one can say for sure which method Betsie Verwoerd preferred.
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