Meet South Africa’s koeksister family: Arno and the Arpins

Meet South Africa’s koeksister family: Arno and the Arpins
Koeksisters and tea. Perfect. (Photo: Louzel Lombard Steyn)

For Arno Arpin, making koeksisters is all in a day’s work; selling their family-recipe koeksisters at the traffic lights in Cape Town’s Northern Suburbs.

He’s been catcalled by lustful ladies in fast cars for having the sexiest legs on the streets. He’s been scammed and mocked and robbed. He’s as steadfast in the sweltering Cape Town summer as he is in the Mother City’s weeklong winter downpours. For Arno Arpin, it’s all in a day’s work; selling their family-recipe koeksisters at the traffic lights on the corner of Nathan Mallach and Giel Basson – a duty he’s been doing diligently for almost three decades. 

Arno Arpin and his family have a no-nonsense policy when it comes to koeksisters. Together, they have mastered the threshold to where these golden braids must be fried to ensure ultimate crispiness – 12 minutes, exactly. He has perfected the density of the syrup in which the hot braided morsels are dunked. But more than that, Arno Arpin and his family have conquered consistency. They have been doing this for 29 years… and counting.  

“Dedication. That’s the secret,” Arno says. “I am dedicated to creating the best koeksisters, every time. I have been for 29 years. I don’t want to make the second-best koeksisters in the country. I want to make the best and I give my everything, every day to achieve that. That is what my customers have grown used to,” he says. “I’m a real pain when it comes to koeksisters…”

Arno and his wife Hannelie live in Goodwood with their daughter Madeleine and young grandson, Hanno. It may seem like a normal suburban household, but when the rest of the northern suburbs are getting in their eight hours, the Arpins are all systems go – kneading and frying and dunking and packing.

“It’s better to bake at night,” Arno tells me. “There are no telephones ringing or anything else to bother you. It’s cooler too, which is good when you have to fry hundreds of koeksisters. I have a youngster helping me out in the afternoons; Eugene Booysen from Lotus River is my left- and right-hand man. He helps with the clearing and prep work, and at about 4pm every day, his work is done. Then it’s up to Madeleine and me.

“We go to bed quite early – around 9pm – and then get up to bake in the early hours. Madeleine helps me while I teach her to fry and plait and soak and pack. We operate until sunrise and then have a nap again from about 8am to 10am in the morning. At around 11am, I hit the road.”

Loyalists would know the well-rehearsed mantra of Arno, clad in a bright red shirt and wide-rimmed white umpires’ hat, walking up and down between cars at the intersection of Barons N1 City; “R40 a bag. R40 a dozen!” 

“I only return home once I sell out,” Arno says. “Sometimes it’s early afternoon, other days it’s well past five. But everything must sell out, every day. While I’m selling, Hannelie handles all the admin and buying and deliveries to big buyers.”

The later in the week, the earlier Arno and Madeleine have to get up to bake bigger batches. Apparently, demand increases exponentially as nobly-founded Monday diets go out the door – and koeksisters come in through the car window – by Thursday or Friday.

“By Sunday, I sell out before 12 (noon), just as church comes out. Sundays are the best sellers because people are out for a treat,” Arno says.   

Even though no one in the Arpin household gets particularly excited about eating a koeksister any more, the business of baking them is shaping up to be a generational relay. The original recipe and secret methods were taught to Hannelie by her late aunt Koba Rademeyer, and she later taught Arno the same skills.

“I’m teaching Madeleine at the moment,” Arno says. “She’s still learning… There are no shortcuts with a koeksister. If the shortcut was any good, there wouldn’t be a long way! But the long way is the only way.”

Even the nine-year-old youngster, Hanno, wants in on the action.

“He now wants to help me plait the dough,” Arno says, proudly. “He said at school the other day he wants to be as famous as his grandpa for his koeksisters.”

The Arpin’s constant ambition for “the world’s best koeksisters” has gained them lofty praise, including a stint at a 1994 presidential dinner where late President Nelson Mandela remarked to the head caterer how delicious the koeksisters were.

“We baked those,” Arno proudly asserts. “I remember the order: 35 dozen cocktail koeksisters; 89 countries present and the President complimented our koeksisters.” 

“We also baked thousands of koeksisters for the 1995 Rugby World Cup celebrations and official ceremonies. At one event for the Australian rugby team, they stacked the mini koeksisters around a cone – like a croquembouche.”

Before the break of dawn at the Arpin residence in Goodwood. Hundreds of koeksisters for the day waiting to be packaged. (Photo: Arno Arpin)

These ones, he boasts, were made with brandy in the syrup. “People still drive by and ask if I can bake those ones again!,” he laughs. “People want to know about koeksisters. The other night again, just before midnight, someone called from California to ask if they can come visit and taste the koeksisters! People just love them.”

Arno has been at his roadside post outside the Barons N1 City Volkswagen dealer for 29 years. Last year, however, his business was stopped dead in the tracks by an unprecedented global lockdown. The first day that restrictions were eased, he masked up and took up his post again. 

“It was a particularly miserable Cape Town day, I was drenched to the bone when I heard a soft little voice calling out; ‘Oom! Oom!’… A young lady took a blanket out of her car and came to wrap it around me, crying. She took all the money from her wallet – R220 – and stuffed it into my basket with the koeksisters. It was tough times, so it really meant a lot. She asked if she could take a photo with me and later posted it to her Facebook, asking friends and followers to support me.

“The people’s response was overwhelming. When I went to my spot the next day – it was a Sunday – there were already four cars waiting for me. People were paying money into my bank account, encouraging me to continue baking.”

Helet-Mari Young, who made the Facebook post, said it broke – and won – her heart when she saw “Oom Arno” in his shorts in the rain selling koeksisters. “I never imagined the Facebook post to do so well, but I am glad it did because Oom Arno deserves all the good things coming to him. He is almost 70 years old, but he still works as if he’s 21. He’s there every day and he does it all with the most incredible attitude and joy.”

The photograph that sparked an outpour of good wishes and new business for Arpin Koeksisters, taken shortly after the national lockdown by a concerned passer-by. Helet-Mari Young says she has since grown to be a part of the Arpin family. (Photo: Helet-Mari Young)

The origin of the word koeksister is difficult to trace. Some say it references the “sssizzzz” sound the dough makes as it hits the hot oil. Others believe the word nods to the close bond of the two braids wrapping their arms around each other – like sisters. I choose to believe the latter. It’s a perfect metaphor for how, when circumstances heat up exponentially, South Africans are able to wrap one another up in a soft blanket of dough-like (koek)-sisterhood and brotherhood and exude only sweetness. Arno and the Arpins have mastered this art. 

This is their family recipe. According to Arno, you have to figure out the method yourself… and it might take you 29 years to perfect.


2kg cake flour  

50g baking powder

80g margarine

1 litre water 

2 eggs     


5kg white sugar 

2.5 litre water

1 tsp Cream of Tartar

A dash of lemon juice


That would be up to you. DM/TGIFood


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