A Brief History of the Sweetest Sister on the Block

At the top of the list of most South African Southafricanisms are… biltong, waterblommetjie bredie, bobotie, milk tart, mieliepap and the boereworsrol. But perhaps the one to rule them all is the glorious koeksister. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve made these twisted plaits of golden deliciousness, not to mention the number of different recipes I’ve seen, all with their own little twist to perfect the balance of sugar and spice. This twisty sweet treat is baked like a doughnut – the outside golden and crispy, the inside soft and oozing with a syrup that will leave you with sticky fingers and sweet memories for hours.

As celebrated as koeksisters are, it remains unclear where the name came from and how exactly their history pieces together. It’s about as twisted and convoluted as the koeksisters themselves.

Translated literally, koeksister means cake sister. But anyone who’s ever had a bite, will immediately tell you that they look and taste like crispy doughnuts far more than cake. The ‘sister’ part is where it gets interesting: it is believed to have originated from the fable of two sisters who worked together and plaited the first version of these doughnuts, while others claim that ‘sis’ refers to the sizzling sound the oil makes when the dough is dropped into it.

As if the name isn’t enough for a friendly (or heated) dinner table debate, the history of the koeksister is also contested and not nearly as clear as the sugary syrup it is known and loved for. Many believe that the recipe travelled here from Malaysia during the times of slave trade, while others claim that the Dutch settlers brought these sweet sisters to the Cape in 1652, in the form of two recipes: one for a deep-fried sweet treat that resembles the texture of a doughnut, and the other, a recipe for bowtie-like creation made from pasta dough, soaked in a sweet syrup. These recipes were then combined (perhaps by two sisters?) and the dough braided, instead of rolling little doughnut balls. This is where the craze began, and every household competed for the perfectly braided koeksister.

One cannot, of course, talk about koeksisters and neglect to mention their Cape Malay sister, the koesister or koe’sister. The koesister is a soft, doughy, cinnamon tinged version that is dipped in coconut. While koeksisters can be found at nearly every supermarket, tuisnywerheid, and padstal in South Africa, koesisters aretraditionally sold on Sundays all over the Bo-Kaap and Cape Flats.

Koeksisters are a staple in many a household and afternoon tea simply would not be the same without them. They are as intertwined with the identity and heritage of Afrikaans South Africans as they look, and have been lovingly made from family recipes for generations. But over and above the fact that almost every tannie has a pakkie koeksisters in the freezer (yes, not the fridge – or else they will turn soggy), they are widely sold at fundraisers as well. How many churches and schools do we have to thank for the koeksister’s survival, one wonders? If they could speak, what elaborate stories these sizzling sisters would tell.

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