The spice trade is alive and thriving in a bright pink shop in Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap
By RICHARD HOLMES
As the Cape Town skyline morphs and changes with every glassy high-rise stretching heavenwards, there’s a corner of the Mother City that appears untouched by the passing of years. A place where the sense of community is still strong, where shops close for afternoon prayers and housewives greet each other on the street. Children ride their bikes and life carries on much as it has for generations.
The Bo-Kaap may trace its history to the first slaves that arrived at the Cape from the East Indies, but today it’s a colourful corner that quietly watches from the flanks of Signal Hill as the city changes below. And for over six decades, the Atlas Trading Company has been providing fresh spices to the community above and below the bright pink shop.
“My father and uncle bought the business in 1946,” explains Wahab R. Ahmed, who today runs Atlas with his brother and two cousins. “The store originally sold a range of goods, but we introduced spices because there was no good spice shop in Cape Town; they were all in Durban. As the business went on, the demand grew, and we became spice specialists.”
And even that description is something of an understatement. Ask any chef worth his salt (or sumac, saffron or star anise, for that matter) where to find the best spices in Cape Town and the answer is invariably Atlas.
“We import all our spices whole from India and have them ground here to ensure they are 100 per cent pure,” explains Wahab. “Often with local producers the spices are mixed with flour and other ingredients to bulk them up and bring the price down.” The same eagle eye for quality extends to the tubes of saffron locked safely in Wahab’s office.
“It’s the most expensive spice we stock, and we only sell authentic saffron imported from Spain. With saffron from Iran or Kashmir there’s no guarantee that it’s pure… some people sell coloured coconut husk as saffron!”
It’s all about knowing and trusting your shopkeeper, and while most customers still place their orders at the old-school front desk, you’re just as welcome to wander the rows of spice drawers beyond. Fragrant allspice, piquant peppercorns and mounds of masala waft through the shop as chefs, housewives and curious tourists pick and choose. Vast tubs of rice take up one corner, but for foodies there’s really only one choice, says Wahab. “Basmati rice from India is the Rolls Royce of rice. And the thing to know about basmati is that the older the rice is, the better it cooks. When rice is too fresh it cooks soft, so you need to let it lie for a few years. At the moment we’re selling a 2008 crop of basmati.” Past the rice, vats of brown lentils, butter beans, chickpeas and dhal sit alongside caraway, poppy, pumpkin and sunflower seeds. I do some mental maths and realise the prices are roughly half what I pay for the pre-packed item in my local supermarket. “We also stock a number of unusual Middle Eastern spices,” adds Wahab, “things like sumac and za’atar, as well as special items such as pomegranate seeds that add a lovely sweet-sour taste to your curry.”
And a fine curry is ultimately the reason most customers come here. Fresh whole spices to grind and blend at home, if you know how, or a packet of Leaf Masala if you don’t.
“For those who don’t know how to blend their spices, the 12-in-1 Leaf Masala is definitely something to have in the cupboard,” says Wahab. “The ingredients are no secret – it has spices like fennel, cumin, coriander, pimento and star anise – but the secret is the amounts of each we mix in. “And if you don’t know how to cook it… we will also give you a recipe from my cousin’s wife,” he adds with a smile. I fit both categories, so accept a packet and the recipe willingly.
After nearly 70 years and two generations, Atlas remains a key stitch in the colourful Bo Kaap cloth, but I couldn’t help wondering how long the bright pink walls will resonate with the clink of spice scoops and rustle of basmati rice.
“We’re still a family business with my brother and cousins, but our children are all grown and educated,” says Wahab wistfully. “So who’s going to take over from us? We don’t know…”
Spices at home
Spices will last up to a year if stored correctly. A tightly sealed glass jar kept in a cool, dry place is best. Avoid using paper or plastic packets. Use a domestic coffee grinder to grind whole spices just before cooking. “But the trick is to warm them before grinding,” says Wahab. “That’s how my mother used to do it, as you get a much better aroma from the spice.”
Photographs by BRUCE TUCK