Koeksister Who?

A brief explanation about the demographics of South Africa:

Based on the latest census in 2011, roughly 9% of South Africa’s population is white. Within that group, about 61% are Afrikaans speakers, 36% are English speakers, and the remaining 3% speak other languages such as Portuguese.

A good portion of the black population – which of course constitutes the vast majority of South Africans – also speaks Afrikaans, though mostly not as their mother tongue. Today, however, it is only the Afrikaans speaking part of the white population that I’m going to write about. Or rather, their cooking. Which might be one and the same. Afrikaners are very proud of their cooking.

I’d like to say that I actually don’t know if the word Afrikaner is offensive or not. Or a source of pride for those who have Afrikaner bloodlines. Just like some WASP Americans take pride in tracing their ancestry all the way back to the Mayflower and the first pilgrims, some Afrikaners can trace their heritage all the way back to Jan van Riebeeck who was the first European settler to set foot on South Africa’s southwesternmost tip. More Dutch settlers followed, but alas, as so often in history, the English were hot on their heels and eventually managed to wrest the new colony from their hands. But not entirely. Eventually, both sides entered an uneasy truce which you could say has lasted until today. (This was the very condensed version. For a more in-depth history lesson, read In the Footsteps of Paul Kruger and the Voortrekkers, and for a bit of background on the English-Afrikaner conflict, read my review of The Covenant by James Michener.)

Afrikaners have also been called Boers, a word you might know from the Boer Wars. There were two. Winston Churchill was there. And concentration camps were established then too. By the British. But I mostly know the word Boer from Boerewors, an excellent piece of sausage. Which brings us back to cooking.

Koeksisters (pronounced “cook sisters” or close to it) are one of the South African food staples. Right behind biltong, rusks, and all things off the braai. They are a very sweet and very sticky delicacy made from a donut-like dough shaped into mini-braids and finished off with sugar syrup. The word derives from the Dutch koekje, which means cookie. Apparently there is also a spicy Cape Malay version of the koeksister which is rolled in dried coconut. I’ve never seen that version, but we came across the Afrikaner koeksister on many of our travels. Sometimes it was simply sold by the roadside, and sometimes it was touted as “the best koeksister to be found in all of South Africa” by the establishment selling them. Recipes are handed down through the generations of Afrikaner families (and the occasional “English” family too, I think) and there is a lot of friendly competition as to whose is the best.

I can’t say I’ve exactly missed koeksisters. Much like I wouldn’t miss Dunkin Donuts if we moved away from the U.S. again. But nonetheless I was excited to come across a whole kitchen full of koeksisters the other day, right here in Middle Tennessee. That’s because we have a club here called Friends of South Africa. We do a lot of fun stuff and we field a killer dragon boat team, but mainly, what we do best is cook (and eat).

Recently we got together at Anile’s house to learn how to make koeksisters. Or, as in my case, we watched others make koeksisters while we stole samples off the tray.

Here is the koeksister prep table:

the making of koeksisters

I didn’t linger at the prep table too long, because it looked like a lot of work and nothing to eat (yet). Here you can see how you cut the dough so it can be braided. What’s with that drafting paper underneath? Do you have to be that precise?

the making of koeksisters

Here is the braiding part. Looks exactly like when my girls get their hair braided at the beach in the summer. That’s how fast these women can braid a koeksister!

the making of koeksisters

Now comes the big moment, the frying of the koeksisters. Note how uncrowded the pot looks. I think that’s my undoing whenever I fry something (which is once every 5 years, approximately). I am impatient to be done and put everything in at once, and then it doesn’t brown.

the making of koeksisters

And finally, the dunking of the koeksisters into the syrup. Note how the syrup is kept in a bowl of ice water. Apparently it’s real important that it’s very cold. So as to stick better, I assume.

the making of koeksisters

I hope that this will prompt you to try making your own koeksisters sometime. They will either turn out to be lekker koeksisters or kak koeksisters. (For a little primer on Afrikaans, click here.)

Here is Anile’s secret family koeksister recipe (no doubt handed down from Jan van Riebeeck’s wife himself):


Anile’s Secret Koeksister Recipe

For the batter

  • 6x250ml King Arthur unbleached flour (250ml is one cup)
  • 20ml Baking Powder
  • 5ml salt (1 tsp)
  • 30g margarine
  • 500ml milk (but use a little less).
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
  1. Sift all the dry ingredients together. Heat milk and margarine until margarine is melted. Let it cool and add the eggs. Add mixture to the dry ingredients and mix until a soft batter forms. Rub hands with a little oil and knead the dough well for 10 minutes (you can also use the Kitchenaid). Cover and let stand in a warm place for 20 minutes.
  2. Roll it with your rolling pin, cut in strips, braid or twist. Fry in medium oil until light brown. Dunk in cold syrup immediately after removing from the oil. Place on a drip rack.

Syrup (prepare this the day before baking your koeksisters)

  • 12x 250ml sugar
  • 6x 250ml water
  • 7.5ml salt
  • 15ml vanilla
  • 30ml lemon juice (optional).
  1. Heat sugar and water until it’s about to boil and all the sugar is melted. Stir continuously. Once the syrup starts boiling, set timer for 7 minutes. Remove from heat after 7 minutes, and add the rest of the ingredients. Cover with lid and let cool. Refrigerate overnight. Use half of the cold syrup for your first batch of koeksisters, keep the rest in fridge. Keep adding the cold syrup as you go along. (Best to keep the syrup in a bowl of ice water while dunking the koeksisters).
  2. Store koeksisters in refrigerator to prevent from getting soggy. Can also be frozen.

I haven’t tried making them myself, but there seems to be one hard rule: Do not, under any circumstances, leave the koeksisters in the syrup for more than 4 seconds! Also not less. 4 seconds exactly. I don’t know what happens if you forget – maybe you’ll be forever glued to the koeksister upon touching it if you do it wrong.

In any case, it seems to be a good idea to have plenty of wipes nearby when you’re eating one.

the making of koeksisters
Ta-daaaa! Ready to dig in. Which we did, trust me.

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