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