By her own account, Soraya Sheppard’s recipe for koeksisters (pronounced “cake-sisters”) goes back to “my grandmother, who learned it from her mother.” The fried dough cakes dipped in chilled syrup are a popular treat in South Africa, where Sheppard grew up. Though her ancestry is Malaysian, the family had migrated to Johannesburg by the time she was born, and her grandmother ran a business selling koeksisters. “Most of the women those days weren’t even educated,” says Sheppard. “It was a way that many women could make a living, by selling their desserts and treats from home.”
Mona Essa, Sheppard’s mother, preferred to make the dessert just for family occasions. “She did not have my grandmother’s entrepreneurial spirit,” says Sheppard. “Instead she spent her time experimenting with the formula. My mother loved cooking and baking, but not as a business.”
After spending years in the food industry, including owning a restaurant, Sheppard moved to Chicago in 1987, bringing her mother’s perfected recipe and her grandmother’s business sense with her. Then early this winter she met Konyia Clark at an open house. Clark owns Clark Catering and was planning for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s upcoming visit to Saint Sabina Church. She was looking for South African food ideas, and Sheppard was a perfect match.
“It’s very exciting,” says Clark. “The way we met, the whole sequence of events. To meet someone from South Africa at the time when I needed to know more about the culture and specifically about the pastries,
Sheppard helped Clark make and serve koeksisters for the event. While he was in Chicago, the archbishop had lunch with Sheppard, who recently stepped down as vice chair for the South African/U.S. Women’s Action Group, an organization that helps create awareness of rape victims in South Africa and raises money for those who’ve suffered abuse. “He was so impressed with my efforts,” says Sheppard. He was also impressed with her dessert. In fact, the koeksisters were so well received at the event that Clark and Sheppard decided to go into business together, making and distributing the sweets.
The deep-fried morsels have gone through some radical changes over the years. The original, somewhat bland version was reputedly not much more than white dough dipped in sugar. But as Dutch explorers carried the recipe along Indian spice routes, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and ginger were added to the dough. In Malaysia, tangerine syrup and coconut replaced the plain sugar. Some cooks braid the dough; Sheppard leaves hers in little blobs the size of doughnut holes.
Wanting to distance themselves from the apartheid associations of the Afrikaner name, Sheppard and Clark named their business Cooksistahs. “We brainstormed the way South African nonwhites would say it,” says Sheppard. “‘Cooksistahs’ is what we came up with. It’s much more catchy.”
Cooksistahs Inc. will debut its product at this weekend’s African Festival of the Arts, in Washington Park near 55th and Cottage Grove. “My passion is to educate the public about South African food and its culture,” says Sheppard. “My dream is to have them sold at all the amusement parks in the country, and airports and coffee shops. That’s enough,” she says. “For now.”
Her mother has come to Chicago to help with the business. Sheppard (whose day job is as a personal shopper at Neiman Marcus) has also enlisted the services of her two daughters, Bianca and Nadia, and her son, Safir.
“It’s something I have to do,” says Sheppard. “It’s like a seed that my grandmother planted.”
The African Festival of the Arts runs 10 to 10 Friday through Monday. There’ll be entrances on 55th and on Cottage Grove; admission is $8, $5 for seniors and children under 12, or $25 for a family pass, which admits two adults and two kids. For more information call 773-955-2787.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.