I got into a debate last week with a colleague on the subject of Cape Malay spices. Abdea had brought me a bakkie of her homemade mutton akhni a few weeks earlier and its spicy appeal had doubled my determination to try cooking with this particular blend of spices known to thousands of Cape Town households.
The key ingredient, both in colour and flavour, is turmeric, which gives it a golden ochre hue which is enhanced by other spices including ginger and garlic, cumin (jeera), coriander seed, fennel seeds, chilli, cloves and cassia. I checked this list with Abdea a day after having made my own version of akhni (adapted, not traditional – I didn’t want to presume to know how to do it properly).
“… and it also includes cassia, hey?” I asked, confidently. (Because it does.)
“What’s cassia?” she asked.
“Well, it looks, smells and tastes almost like cinamon, but the bark is much harder.”
“Oh, you mean stick cinnamon!” she retorted, laughing. “You mustn’t confuse the coloureds.”
Akhni is the kind of spice blend that should be celebrating the Cape on at least half of the local restaurant menus, yet I don’t recall ever having seen it outside of a recipe book or a friend’s dinner table. Why is that? The dish screams “Cape cuisine” yet ask all the major chefs cooking for our thronging tourists if they serve akhni on their menus, or even know what it is, and I reckon you’d be met with a sea of blank expressions.
It’s not a curry. It’s a dish of meat – often mutton, lamb or chicken, but it can be made with beef too – and potatoes cooked with a variation of this spice mix in a pot with rice, much like a breyani, only the spices are different and there are no lentils. A breyani will have bay leaf and star anise, which you will not normally find in an akhni. (At which I don’t doubt a hundred Cape home cooks will throw up their hands in horror.)
Having said all that, I steered a wide berth of trying to emulate a true akhni. I didn’t use rice at all. Nor potatoes. And I kept my meat whole, in one piece, rather than use cubes, which would be traditional. But seriously, you have to try this: I was thrilled with the result and I will be doing it again.
Thanks to Abdea and a former colleague, Rosie, who introduced me to her brilliant homemade chicken akhni two years ago, my palate had been primed to know how to tell a good akhni apart from just some random spice mix. And thanks to Faldela Williams’s The Cape Malay Cookbook, a staple of my bookshelf, I had a reliable guide to the blend and rough quantities that would give me the right flavour for my akhni.
My non-traditional akhni lamb shanks start by mixing the following spices in a bowl, ready to be used: 1 heaped tsp each of ground turmeric (borrie), jeera (cumin), coriander (koljander), fennel (barishap), chilli powder, ground ginger, plus 2 tsp finely chopped fresh ginger, 2 tsp salt, 2 tsp crushed garlic, a few cloves and cardamom seeds, and a piece of stick cinnamon (cassia, Daisy).
Braise sliced onions in sunflower oil until they’re golden brown, then stir in the spice mix and add a finely chopped tomato and 200ml water. Bring to a simmer, then put the lamb shanks into the pot one at a time, covering them thoroughly with the spice and onion mix. I used a tajine for this (with the bones protruding towards the middle of the conical lid), but any heavy-bottomed ovenproof pot should do fine.
You can continue either on the stove top (if you use a tajine) or in the oven, but keep it slow and easy. Let it simmer for a good four hours or more, starting at 180 or 190 degrees and, after about half an hour, reduce the heat to 150 to 170. Leave it alone for most of the time, but after three hours have a look and make sure it’s still nice and moist. When the meat is pulling away from the bone, switch the oven or stove plate off and leave it covered until you need it. The meat will continue to tenderise while you wait.
There’s nothing to stop you from cooking rice with the dish, but if so you’d need considerably more water, and I don’t personally like the idea of a sloppy, soupy mess surrounding lamb shanks while they’re cooking. It’s a braise, not a stew.
Rather make rice separately – begrafnisrys (made with turmeric or saffron and raisins) would be a decent match for it, or do what I did and mix olive or sunflower oil with a heaped teaspoon of smoked paprika, rub this all over halved and peeled small butternuts, salt them, wrap in foil and bake in a hot oven until tender.
I also made a chutney for this – absolutely not traditional. It was based simply on circumstance: I had in my cupboard a packet of dried cranberries, and another of dried pomegranate seeds. I braised kulujee (onion) seeds and black mustard seeds in butter with bay leaves, added dried chopped chillies, salt and pepper, 2 Tbs of jaggery (toffee-like unrefined sugar – or just use sugar, Daisy), a tin of chopped tomatoes, and the cranberries and pomegranate seeds. Stirring frequently, let it simmer for a good half hour, then leave it to cool to serve as a chutney accompaniment, garnishing the meat with dhania (coriander leaves).
Now I am going to hide in the broom bupboard until my friends and colleagues have stopped laughing or got over the shock of all this non-traditional meddling. And my apologies for any confusion.