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.