South African Bobotie

As we start to eat our way around the world in honor of the hardworking and gifted international soccer athletes, I have officially renamed this event the FIFA World Cup and Saucer.  Mike doesn’t seem too keen on this new moniker, but so be it.  For our first official post, it seemed obvious that we had to start with a dish from South Africa.  After all, they will technically be our hosts through the multinational culinary foray that we’re about to embark upon.  It seems apropos that we should extend a bit of good grace in return.

Before we take a deep dive, I want you to close your eyes and think of your FAVORITE South African dish.

…..Your eyes are still open and you’re staring at the screen with confusion, aren’t you?  Yeah.  I get it.

Until a couple of years ago, I had no idea about South African cuisine.  When I was working at one of my godforsaken pub jobs, I used to regularly share a shift with a coworker who was of South African descent.  He was dastardly handsome, smoother than a baby’s arse when it came to the ladies, and had the morally questionable ability to counterfeit a South African accent wherever and whenever he felt like it….which was usually when a taut and blond 19 year old was waiting for six Broken Down Golf Carts at the bar.  He rarely ate during our shift, but every now and then at around 3:30 am he’d get the munchies and go into the back to make himself a grilled cheese and banana sandwich.

Yes, grilled cheese and BANANA.

He told me that it was “a South African thing”.  For years I pitied him for not discovering the joys of a toasted peanut butter and bacon sandwich, but more importantly, I was also somewhat convinced that there was an entire nation of diverse peoples who subsisted on a diet of molten cheese products and fruit. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but was I ever excited when I learned how wrong I was.

South African cuisine is intriguing and diverse.  Native cuisine was originally based on locally attainable food, such as shallow water seafood (crayfish, turtles, etc), indigenous coconuts and squash.  Dried foods were both economical and practical for these Hunter Gatherers, encouraging a deep dive into the world of cured meats, dried breads, fruits and vegetables.  When tribes started to branch out and trade began with North Africa, there was an influx of vegetables, notably sweet potato and corn (aka “mealies”) which now comprise together a vast portion of popular diet.

Where South African fare really starts to get interesting, however, is during the revolutions of change through acquisition and settlement.  Modern South African cuisine speaks to centuries of influence from the ruling Portuguese and then Dutch, combined with the influx of Malaysian and Indonesian peoples during the slave trade.  Then the French started to settle, and brought their grape vines with them to the mineral rich soil.  The British, never able to stay far from the action, threw in a hand and got heavily invested in trade.  This led to a continuing transience and adaptability of the local diet with influences from areas as disparate as India and China.

Bobotie (pronounced BO-booh-tea), is an excellent example of the international influences on traditional South African cuisine.  The North African propensity to combine fruits with meat is enhanced by typically Indian and East Asian spices, and balanced with a creamy custard-like coating that would be perfectly at home on a Portuguese casserole or tart.  Is it any wonder then that bobotie is often considered the national dish of South Africa?

As with any traditional dish, the variations on bobotie recipes are almost limitless.  Some cooks opt for simplicity, making a curried raisin-studded beef with custard on top.  Other cooks go over the top with 20-30 ingredients, often combining small amounts of heady Indian influenced spices like garam masala, cumin, coriander as well as the East Indian allspice, and a selection of fruits and nuts.  Popular bobotie falls somewhere between these two extremes and is a balanced casserole of sweet, tart and rich flavors.

When I first tried to describe bobotie to Mike, I told him, “Well, it’s like a South African Shepherd’s Pie….but with eggs and stuff. No, more like a tagine because it’s all about the sweet fruits and heady spices combined with hearty beef mince. But there’s that top layer, which is light and creamy like a delicious egg custard. Okay, would it make sense if I said that it was the South African version of Moussaka, but without all that pesky eggplant?”

He nodded his head with a bit of reservation.

After he TRIED bobotie, he said, “Hey, this is AWESOME! It’s sweet but a bit acidic, and totally hearty and beefy. But….but it’s kind of like…..oh, I don’t know! It’s like a South African version of moussaka!” He looked at me with the pseudo-condescension of He Who Has Solved The Mysteries Of Time Itself.  Like the acquiescent partner that I pretend to be, I cast my eyes askance and tried not to crow with victory as I murmured things about how very insightful he could be.

South African Bobotie

Serves 6 with side dishes, or 4 with a light salad

  • 2 slices soft white sandwich bread
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 medium yellow onions
  • 1.5 lb (720 g) lean ground beef
  • 2 cloves garlic (2 tsp finely chopped)
  • 1″ chunk fresh ginger (1 tbsp finely chopped)
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp curry powder
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup dried apricot, diced
  • 2 tbsp chutney *
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup almonds, pref slivered
  • 6 bay leaves
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 eggs
  • 1.5 cups milk
  • salt and pepper to taste

* Chutney refers to a preserved fruit or vegetable dish that often balances sweet with savory.  In South Africa, “Mrs. Ball’s” is omnipresent to the point that it borders on a monopoly.  Outside of South Africa, Mrs. Balls chutney can be difficult to obtain.  A generic mango chutney is a fine substitute, and if you have homemade chutney, well, all the better.  If your resources are somewhat limited, have no fear.  We have solutions for that! It is not uncommon to see bobotie made with apricot jam or orange marmalade instead of a sweet and sour fruit chutney.  If you opt to use jam instead, reduce the brown sugar and increase the vinegar accordingly.

Preheat your oven to 350ºF and generously butter a large casserole pan with fairly high sides.

Tear the bread into small bite sized pieces and pour the milk over top.  Set this aside to soak.

Melt the butter in a large skillet or pan set over medium low heat.  Finely dice the onions (there should be roughly 2 cups, or just slightly more) and begin to sweat them out in the butter for 5-7 minutes. Stir the onion occasionally so that it does not brown or burn as it starts to soften.

While the onion cooks, finely mince the garlic and peeled  ginger root.

When the onion is pale gold and sweet, add the beef mince along with the garlic and ginger.  Turn the heat up slightly to medium.  Brown  the beef, breaking it up regularly with the back of your spoon  until it is nice and fine with no large chunks whatsoever. Be sure to stir regularly.

When there is no pink left in the beef, and it is that sorrowful gray color that only ground beef can achieve, add the sugar, curry powder, turmeric and ground cloves.

Continue to cook the beef for another 10-12 minutes, or until it actually starts to brown as opposed to just denature. At this point, the fat will have mostly rendered out and you don’t need to stir as regularly.  Lapsing in the stirring department will also help the meat to caramelize and actually brown.

When the meat has darkened and started to brown, squeeze the milk out of the bread and crumble the soggy white mass into your pan.  Keep the reserved milk and set it aside.  Add the raisins, chopped dried apricots, chutney and red wine vinegar.

Stir the mixture until it is combined.  Be sure to really press on the bread to break it up so that it incorporates evenly into the mix and thickens the dish.  Let it cook for a minute or two and then add in the almonds.  If you have slivered almonds, they can go in as is.  If you’re using whole almonds like I am, give them a thorough chop before adding them to the pan. As soon as the almonds are stirred in, remove the pan from the heat. Season the meat mixture with salt and pepper and taste it to make sure that the seasoning is adequate.

Spread the meat mixture into your buttered casserole dish, smoothing it down into an even layer.  Using a large soup spoon or small paring knife, press 6 evenly spaced slits into the meat (you may wish to do 2 rows of 3).  Tuck a bay leaf into each divot, making sure that each is half in the meat and half exposed.

Bake the casserole base in your oven for 20 minutes.

While it is baking, whisk together the 2 eggs, 1.5 cups of milk, and any reserved milk that was squeezed out of the bread.  Season this liberally with salt and pepper.

The casserole should be fairly firm and richly browned on top.  Pour the eggy milk mixture on top and tuck this back in the oven for an additional 20-30 minutes.

Don’t worry about the rather greasy looking surface as this will brown as the casserole cooks.  Cooking time will depend on both your the size of your casserole dish and how temperamental your oven is.  Thinner bobotie will take less time, but thicker bobotie will need an additional 25-40 minutes to finish cooking.  The egg should be set, slightly puffy, and browned around the edges.  Similarly, an oven that runs low will need a bit more time to cook the casserole.

Remove the bobotie from the oven and tent it with a clean tea towel for 10 minutes so that it can firm up.

Bobotie is often served with Geel Rys (yellow rice, Javanese style), “Breddies” (stewed or mashed vegetables), and a simple and lightly dressed chopped salad on the side.  I opted for the yellow rice but omitted the breddies in favor of a fresh South African style tomato salad instead.

Rich, sweet, fruity and pungent all at the same time, bobotie is a taste which is well worth acquiring.  We have at least a couple of weeks of FIFA action ahead of us, and I strongly implore you to at some point try this traditional entree.  South Africa may not win the World Cup, but this dish sure as stuffing wins honorable mention for my “World Saucer”.

  • Kulsum

    Why didn’t I ever wonder what South African’s eat before ?? I know a bit of what North African do but never knew about this ! I don’t see any reason why it should not go down well on my family’s Indian
    palate ….I need to try this 🙂

  • lo

    Aside from some pretty kick ass South African wines… you’re right. I never thought much about the culinary traditions originating there. I must admit, I’m intrigued. South African moussaka, huh? I’m all over that concept.

  • April G.

    THANK YOU! I worked with a South African woman about 10 years ago, and she made this for me when I went to her house for dinner. I think about it periodically, and the World Cup reminded me of it the other day. And now you have it here! Yay!

    Hers had peaches and didn’t have the custard top. It had potatoes mixed in, and she served it on top of rice because “South Africans always have two starches.” The spices and flavors look similar to what I remember. I’ll definitely try your recipe!

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