A South African Seder, Inspired by Lithuanian Roots

Spicy Flavors of African Cape Put Stamp on Litvak Tradition

Carrot Candy: Beth Pollak, who’s family is South African shows off a plate of sweet and spicy ingberlach in her Brooklyn home.
elaine tin nyo
Carrot Candy: Beth Pollak, who’s family is South African shows off a plate of sweet and spicy ingberlach in her Brooklyn home.

By Leah Koenig

Published March 19, 2013, issue of March 22, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

In the 1920s, when Esther Perkel was a young girl living in South Africa, she and her family traveled by tram and rickshaw to the Newtown Market in Johannesburg to buy bushels of fresh grapes grown in the vineyards around the Cape of Good Hope. Her family carted the grapes home shortly after Purim, where they washed them in galvanized tubs in the family’s kitchen, mixed them with sugar and left them to ferment in a barrel in the pantry until Passover.

This annual process was tedious and time consuming, but with no other kosher wine available, it was necessary — for the Perkels, and for many other families in South Africa.

The roots of the South African Jewish community, which today numbers about 72,000 people, date back to the Portuguese-Jewish cartographers who enabled Vasco de Gama’s discovery voyage to the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. In the early 1800s, several Jewish families from England were among the first residents to make their way to the newly appointed British colony, and by 1841, the country’s first synagogue congregation, Tikvat Israel, formed in Cape Town.

But the country got its most significant Jewish population boost in the decades on either side of the turn of the 20th century, when approximately 35,000 Lithuanian Jews moved there to escape pogroms back home, and to seek opportunities in the burgeoning gold and diamond trade.

The Litvaks, like Perkel and her family, brought with them their deeply cherished recipes and food customs, from their unique name for braided challah (kitke — a term which likely stems from the German word for putty and is today exclusively used among South African Jews of Lithuanian descent) to their enduring love of teiglach (balls of dough cooked in honey) and the tendency to pair kichlach, sugar-dusted egg cookies, with briny herring.

After World War II, Johannesburg, and to a lesser extent Cape Town, became unlikely bastions of Lithuanian Jewish life — aided by the freedom of religious worship that had been established in South Africa in the early 19th century.

Over the centuries, South Africa’s Jews held tight to their Lithuanian food traditions, blending them with flavors from the foods of South Africa’s indigenous and immigrant communities and periods of Dutch and British colonization. The results were dishes like curried fish balls. A cousin of gefilte fish, these whitefish balls are simmered in a curry-flavored sauce — the influence of South Africa’s sizable Indian population. Jews have also created kosher versions of biltong, a popular Dutch-inspired cured and dried meat similar to jerky.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.