Yola’s: The Place for Koesisters (and Koeksisters?) in Joburg

by | Aug 8, 2023 | Brixton, Food and Drink, Johannesburg | 26 comments

I’m struggling to figure out how to start writing this post because I’m struggling to figure out how to explain koesisters.

Koesister from Yola's kitchen
A koesister from Yola’s kitchen.

The koesister ranks among South Africa’s most iconic foods, right up there with biltong, boerewors, chakalaka, and milk tart. Koesisters are vaguely like donuts, just with a different shape, flavor, and texture. (So maybe not that much like donuts after all.) The koesister’s identity is further complicated by its close relationship to the koeksister — same word except with an extra k in the middle, but possibly stemming from an entirely different root — to which the koesister is similar, but different.

This is all very confusing to non-South-Africans like me. But I think a lot of South Africans also aren’t totally clear on the difference between a koesister and a koeksister…I see a lot of websites throwing the two terms around interchangeably. So, here is a clumsy 2Summers explanation based on some chaotic Google research:

What Are Koe(k)sisters?

Koeksisters are Dutch Afrikaans in origin, probably inspired by pastries from the Netherlands. Koeksisters are prepared by braiding together three strips of pastry dough, deep-frying the braided dough, then plunging it immediately into ice-cold sugar syrup and serving at room temperature.

There are multiple theories on the origin of the word koeksister. Most sources say it comes from koek, a Dutch word for cake or cookie, and zuster, the word for sister — either because the three pieces of braided dough are like sisters, or because koeksisters are small cakes (like little sisters of big cakes). Other sources suggest the second part of the word comes from sissen, the Dutch word for sizzle, since koeksisters are fried.

Lunch dessert on Rovos
File photo of a koeksister (left), which I enjoyed several years ago on the Rovos Rail. The dessert on the right, in case you’re wondering, is a mini milk tart.

Koesisters, also referred to as koe’sisters, are Cape Malay in origin, possibly based on a savory snack and spices brought to South Africa by enslaved people from Indonesia. While recipes vary, koesisters are made by preparing a spicy-sweet dough with sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and other spices, cutting the dough into smallish ovals, frying the dough, letting it cool, then briefly simmering the fried dough in hot sugar syrup. Koesisters are dusted with shredded coconut while still warm and best eaten right away. (Although they’re good at room temperature, too.)

Koesister dough
Koesister dough, ready to fry. The dough has a much cakier consistency than the pastry-like koeksister dough.

You would think the words koeksister and koesister have the same origin, but not necessarily. Wikipedia says “koe’sister” refers to a Cape Malay term for “polite gossiping among spinsters”, which piqued my interest. But the Wiki page doesn’t explain this tantalizing fact any further and I couldn’t find anything about it in the citations.

I spent quite a bit of time trying to pull apart the origin story of South African koe(k)sisters — whether one version sprung from the other or which came first. (Here is one of the better koeksister/koesister articles I found, although it doesn’t venture an opinion on which was the original.) I’ve yet to find a definitive answer and I feel like I could spend weeks digging around in this rabbit hole without success.

One thing I do know, after many years of eating koe(k)sisters, is that making a good one is hard. Afrikaans and Cape Malay alike, koe(k)sisters are often too soft, too hard, too sweet, too gooey, and/or just bland. But now I’ve found Yola, the real reason behind this rambling post, and her koe(k)sister kitchen in Feitas. Thanks to Yola, I never have to worry about finding great koesisters again.

Yola Minnaar in her kitchen.
Yola Minnaar, Queen of the Koe(k)sister, in what has to be the best-smelling kitchen in Fietas.

Yola’s Kitchen

Thorsten discovered Yola through a neighbor’s post on the Brixton neighborhood Whatsapp group. Yola’s home and business are in Fietas, just a kilometer or so from my house. (Fietas is a historic Joburg neighborhood with an even more complicated story than that of the koe(k)sister. I touch on that story in this 2016 post about the now-defunct Roving Bantu Kitchen, but really need to write something better about Fietas eventually.)

We ordered some koesisters from Yola a couple of weeks ago and took them with us to a party, where one guest actually teared up with joyful nostalgia after biting into one. They really are that good — chewy on the outside, soft on the inside, with just enough coconut and spice.

Yola is a former butchery owner, originally from East London, who moved to Fietas in 2015. She is a community activist who spends most of her time feeding the hungry, liaising with Joburg city government to keep her community’s electricity and water on, and generally helping people in need. She recently delivered a baby (!) in the Brixton Cemetery.

When she’s not busy saving the world, Yola earns a living making koesisters and other delectable desserts.

Yola sprinkles coconut on some koesisters
Yola sprinkles coconut on a batch of freshly cooked Cape Malay koesisters, which Yola calls “black koeksisters”.

I wanted to document Yola doing her thing. So I visited her this past Sunday, traditionally the day when people sit around their homes sipping coffee and eating fresh koesisters. I arrived at 8:00 a.m., when Yola was in the middle of the frying phase. She had gotten up four hours earlier to prepare the dough and wait for it to rise.

Yola's kitchen in Fietas
Outside Yola’s kitchen, which is in a wendy house outside the main house.
Yola at work
The Koe(k)sister Queen at work.

Here’s how Yola operates: She prepares the koesister dough either on Saturday night or early Sunday morning, using a simple recipe with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cardamom. (I asked Yola if she wanted to keep her recipe a secret. She said no. “If someone else makes them, they won’t taste the same anyway,” she told me.) She can also fry the dough the night before, if necessary. The “syruping” starts at 8:00 a.m. Sunday.

Frying the dough
Frying the dough.
Fried koesister bowl
Fried dough, ready to syrup. (I love using syrup as a verb.)
Koesister syrup
The syrup is simple brown sugar and water, which Yola tops up as she goes along. Each koesister cooks for about 30 seconds.
Yola cooking over the stove
Freshly syruped and ready to sprinkle with coconut.

Soon after I arrived, customers started showing up with their own plastic containers. The customers hand over their money — R45 (about $2.50) per dozen, and most people seem to buy at least two dozen — and Yola dunks the corresponding number of dough balls into the syrup. She then takes the container, sprinkles some dried coconut into the bottom, ladles in the fresh koesisters, then adds a whole bunch more coconut and shakes it all up. If someone comes without a container, no problem — Yola serves the warm koesisters in a paper bag.

Customer of Yola's arrives for koesisters
First customer of the day arrives with her container.
Cutest customer of the day
Cutest customer of the day.

Hanging out with Yola while she worked, chatting about her life and her food, was utterly delightful. The best part was going home with my own plastic container of two dozen koesisters, which Thorsten and I (and a few friends) devoured with ice cream as our Sunday lunch dessert.

Freshly prepared koesisters
Sorry to be controversial but koesisters are the best. I like them much better than koeksisters. And Yola’s are the best of the best.

Yola makes koeksisters too. While I was there someone called in an order of “white koeksisters”, which Yola said she would make later that day. I’ll have to try those too, eventually.

I’m so grateful to Yola for welcoming me into her world. I hope you’ll help me repay her by ordering lots of her koesisters. If you do, you’ll experience the twin benefits of tasting one of the best desserts in Joburg and supporting a woman who is making a huge, positive impact in her community. Thanks in advance!

Yola’s kitchen is on Rus Street, and very easily accessible. Phone or Whatsapp her at +27-78-202-4572.

26 Comments

  1. Albert

    This made me crave koe’susters and koeksusters!

    Reply
    • 2summers

      My job is done then.

      Reply
  2. dizzylexa

    I far prefer a good Koesuster to a koeksister, I think it’s the spices and coconut over ruling the syrup that does it for me. They are definitely a Sunday morning thing with tea but ice-cream sounds good. I’ll have to try out Yola’s sometime soon.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yeah, it’s definitely a more complex flavor profile (as the food critics say).

      Reply
  3. Barend van der Merwe

    These are serious issues yes. Famously, in the small little town of Orania in the Northern Cape, there is a koeksister monument, which I happen to paid a visit once. A student from the University of Pretoria, Rudolph Boraine, also undertook an academic study of the matter, as part of a postgraduate degree. As I grew up in an Afrikaner household, I only knew koeksisters as a youngster, and only got to know koesisters later in life. Like most culinary delights, the histories of both the koesister and the koeksister are disputed and somewhat shrouded in mystery. This only serves to bolster their appeal to the senses. The koesister certainly represents the influence of Asia on South African history, while the koeksister over time became somewhat associated with Afrikaner culture. With it’s spices and less sweet taste, I have to say that I prefer a koesister to a koeksister these days. These look mouthwatering!

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Someday I want to go to Orania and see that koeksister monument in person. It looks very strange in photos!

      Reply
  4. Ms. Nancy Anne McDaniel

    Oh yum. I would just like to meet Yola. She sounds amazing!

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I’ll bet you two would hit it off.

      Reply
  5. Laurie A Walker

    These look delicious! Spending two months in Joburg next year and have put Yola’s on my “must see” list.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      It’s a definite must-see.

      Reply
  6. frankieford

    Another interesting post which I am sure is enjoyed by thousands. It takes an American to come here and show us South Africans what’s what. 🙂 Thank you

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Haha, thank you! “Thousands” of readers is usually a stretch for one of my posts but this is an especially good story so hopefully it will get there 🙂

      Reply
  7. AutumnAshbough

    You have now made me very hungry. Yet again.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I haven’t done that for a while!

      Reply
    • Paul Spender

      Top class, these are.

      Reply
      • 2summers

        Yay, glad you agree!

        Reply
  8. Paul Spender

    Absolutely, frigging marvelous. I cannot believe this place exists!!!

    Reply
  9. Cathy

    Mouthwatering, best I have ever tasted!!!! Will be back shortly. When the craving gets me. (Mmmmmm)

    Reply
  10. Ameera Suliman

    Yola is an amazing legendary if i May say in her community May the Lord continue to bless this amazing Soul

    Reply
  11. Andre Strachan

    Try Nantie’s koesisters in Eersterust Pretoria

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I’ll keep an eye out the next time I’m up that way!

      Reply
  12. Mai

    Hi Heather. Thanks for this article. Now I know about koesisters which I haven’t had a chance to taste yet. But I did eat Koeksisters, which are too sweet for me.
    Yola’s koesisters look delicious. I’m sure they will become sweet childhood snacks for the children in her neighbourhood.
    After reading your article, I came across this article from Food & Home magazine which is also very interesting to read. https://www.foodandhome.co.za/features/the-difference-between-koesisters-and-koeksisters

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hi Mai, I’m glad you enjoyed the article! And thanks for sharing the Food and Home story.

      Reply

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