What do you get when you throw a some ground meat, eggs and bread at an 17th century Dutch spice ship? The answer is bobotie, South Africa’s national dish that was born of a dark union between colonizers, slaves and the centuries-old spice trade.
Bobotie is a dish of sweet and zesty mince meat topped with a creamy custard and infused with spices that will remind Brits of their shepherd’s pie, Greeks of moussaka, and French folks of hachis Parmentier. All the dishes have in common a ground meat base topped with either mashed potatoes or an eggy-cheesy custard (or both), as well as their potential as first-class leftover fare for those looking to recycle their Sunday roasts.
Bobotie is specifically a Cape Malay dish, a name that in South Africa signifies the population of Malay-speaking people that were for the most part forcibly brought to the country as part of the Dutch slave decampment program.
The Rest Stop at the Bottom of the World
The Dutch never really intended to colonize the Cape of Good Hope, and rather saw the spot as a handy place to recharge sailors’ batteries during the long journey from Europe around the tip of Africa on their way to Asia, and back again. It was an unforgiving ride, and so a little sojourn in Southern Africa made the journey all the more palatable.
A handful of Dutch people headed up by a chap called Jan van Riebeeck were initially sent to the cape to maintain the outpost there. They were given land in exchange for agreeing to produce and provide enough food for the passing ships of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company. In return the ‘free burgers,’ as the new settlers were known, requested cheap labor in order to meet the demands that had been put on them.
The Cape Malay Resistance
When the Dutch first arrived in South Africa, no slave trade had really been established there in the way that it had in West Africa. Having already slithered its colonial entrails into various parts of Asia, mostly modern Indonesia, but also India and Madagascar, the Dutch East India Company had already had to quell several resistance movements. One of their ways of dealing with the recalcitrant subjects of their Asian colonies was to pack them onto ships and send them into slavery in South Africa.
This is how the Cape Malay population came to be settled in South Africa. They were mostly muslim, Malay-speaking citizens of Indonesia and the Malaysian peninsula, rebels and resistors of the foreign powers exploiting their countries. Once in South Africa, many of the Malay exiles were given work in the kitchens of the European settlers there. In fact, they became quite sought-after as cooks. It was inevitable that their style of cooking would seep through into the dishes they prepared, and explains how a dish like bobotie might have come about.
Not Your Mother’s Moussaka
Infused with coriander, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and cardamom, this bobotie is dripping with Asian flavor, and forms part of an arsenal of dishes that fall into the Cape Malay treasury in South Africa. These include curries and stews as well as samoosas (samosas), biryanis and the sweet koeksisters – which are most likely descendants of Indian gulab jamun.
This spice revolution worked its way into the palates of South Africa’s European settlers and slowly transformed to fit everyone’s tastes. Hot chilis were phased while non-chili spices were kept, and the flavors were developed to chime with foods being produced by other gastronomically-inclined immigrants like the French Huguenots who in particular propagated vineyards and were big makers of jam. Their legacy can be found in the dollop of apricot jam included in this bobotie recipe that adds a very subtle touch of sweetness.
About The Recipe
Despite its exotic appearance, there shouldn’t be too much in this bobotie recipe that you won’t be able to source from your local supermarket. The only thing that might be tricky is the chutney – you can substitute with fresh chilis, chili powder, or any chili-based condiment, or even skip them totally if you don’t want any hot spice in your dish.
But if you are feeling like you want to push the authenticity of the dish, then do try and bag yourself a jar of Mrs. Ball’s hot chutney. It’s an original South African formulation, and the story of how the company came into being is great: Mrs. Ball was born to parents who ended up in South Africa when the ship they were traveling in from Canada to Australia was wrecked off the South African coast. They had with them a recipe for a delicious chutney which survived the disaster and which they gave to their daughter when she came of age. The rest is history.
Preparing Your Bobotie
Get all of your bobotie ingredients together, and measure out the spices. For the mince, some use beef, others use lamb; we decided to take the middle path and go for a pound of each.
Start out by tearing up your pieces of bread and leaving them to soak in a bowl of the milk.
Start to brown your mince in a pan with a little oil over a medium heat. Keep the meat moving so it doesn’t stick to the bottom.Once the meat is brown, add the chopped onions and let them sweat.Now add the carrots and allow them to soften for a few minutes.Add the garlic and sauté until you really start to sense the aroma.At this point, you can add the spices and allow them to roast and infuse into the meat.Next up is the optional dose of chutney or chilis, followed by the jam, raisins and lemon juice.Take your milk-soaked pieces of bread, drain off any excess milk, and add them to the mix. Leave the mixture on the stove for just a few more minutes to infuse all the flavors. Just before you’re ready to take it off the heat, you can prepare the custard mixture that you’ll be pouring over the top. It’s pretty simple – just whisk together the cup of milk with two eggs until they reach a thick and creamy consistency.Transfer the meat mixture into a suitable baking dish. Something a bit deeper is ideal for bobotie, either something like a 9×13 dish, or a smaller dish for an individual-sized portion.Smooth out the meat mixture and cover with the custard topping. Pour it evenly over the meat to ensure it’s well spread out.Drop a few bay leaves into the custard, and it’s good to go in the oven! Bake it for 40 minutes at 350F.Your bobotie should be nicely browned on top when it’s done. Serve it up with a plate of yellow rice and a small side of (more!) Mrs. Ball’s hot chutney.
Our Take on the Recipe
Step aside shepherd’s pie! Move over, moussaka! Hop off, hachis! This creamy, spicy pot of deliciousness has given new life to the next-day meat and topping concept. We love the spiciness and the heartiness of the bobotie, and after tasting the way the custard integrates into the dish, can never bring ourselves to cover our ground meat with mashed potatoes again.
The way the mince turned out, mixed with the onion, carrot and spices, reminded us a little of an empanada filling, only maybe a touch juicier.
The one thing we were a little flummoxed by was the presence of the bread pieces in the dish. We don’t really feel like they added anything in particular to the texture or the bulk of the bobotie, and could just as well be left out, especially if you are going gluten-free.
South African Bobotie
For the Minced Meat Base:
- 1lb minced lamb
- 1lb minced beef
- 1 large carrot, peeled and grated
- 2 onions, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- ½ cup raisins
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp cardamom
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tbsp apricot jam
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp hot chutney (preferably Mrs. Ball's if you can source it)
- 2 slices white bread soaked in ¼ cup milk
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice or white vinegar
For the Topping:
- 6 bay leaves
- 1 cup milk
- 2 medium eggs
- Salt and pepper to taste
Step 1: Brown the Minced Meat
- Set the oven to heat at 350F.
- Tear up the bread and soak in milk.
- Heat oil in a pan and put on a medium heat.
- Saute the minced meat until brown.
Step 2: Add the Veggies and Aromatics
- Add the diced onions and let them sweat for a few minutes.
- Add the shredded carrots into the mix and let them cook for a few minutes until soft.
- Add the garlic and sautee until aromatic.
- Add the spices and incorporate fully into the mixture.
- Add the chutney, jam, lemon juice, and raisins.
- Add the milk-soaked bread, discarding any excess milk.
- Let everything cook few just another 3 minutes or so, just to make sure all the flavors have melded together.
Tip: Step 1-2 should take approximately 20 minutes.
Step 3: Transfer to Baking Dish, Add Custard Topping and Bake
- Transfer the mixture to a baking dish.
- Whisk together eggs and milk in a bowl to make a custard.
- Pour the custard mixture on top of the mince.
- Top with bay leaves.
- Bake for 40 minutes.
Cuisine Cape Malay