From South Africa: bobotie

If you ever had 2 very eventful years, like my last two, you know that sometimes it’s hard to keep track of everything that happened. But then there is Facebook and its pointless tools, to remind us of something that happened this very day, in the past years.
Some weeks ago, Facebook prompted me to share with my friends a post I’d written at O.R.Tambo airport in Johannesburg, last year.
And it’ true, I actually went to I actually went to South Africa last year last year, shortly after the surgery. It’s strange how I remembered everything about the bad part, and nothing about the good part instead…
But for sure I remember the yummiest part of the whole trip to SA: bobotie!
Bobotie is a curry spiced mince meat, covered by a layer of some kind of custard and baked. It is widely agreed that it’s an Indonesia inspired dish, that was probably introduced into South Africa by the people of the Dutch East Company in the 17th century, and has since then been brought to perfection by the Cape Malay community in Cape Town.
Bobotie has now spread throughout SA, and in facts, the first one I sampled was tucked inside one of Harrie’s Pancakes in Graskop, Mpumalanga, not exactly in the Cape Region.

Harrie's pancakes
I am very partial to mince meat in every form, be it Italian polpette or Spanish albondigas, or Ireland’s sheperds’ pie, or Greek moussaka… so I really liked bobotie, but still, it was my first taste, and you must never trust first impressions, right?
Therefore, the closer we were getting to Cape Town, the more impatient I got to sample the real thing, the authentic bobotie of the Kaap! A quick investigation, and I got to understand that the best one was to be found in Bo-Kaap Kombuis.
The restaurant it’s not very promising from the outside, and let’ just say that “fancy” is not a word I’d use to describe the interior. That said, the owners were very kind with us, even though it was quite late to show up for lunch. Furthermore, the restaurant is located on the very last portion of houses going all the way uphill, so the view on Table Mountain and Signal Hill itself is a great setting for a nice lunch.

Sure enough, the place was full of locals who were there enjoying their sunday meal, very much looking like this was something they did every Sunday. When the plates arrived, not surprisingly, no imagination was wasted on composition, but the food was good, and felt like what my grandmother would have cooked for me on Sunday, had she been Malay.

Bo-Kaap Kombuis
The bobotie was level with my expectations, but my husband’s lamb curry was even better!
When I got back, I started planning more extensive travels to the parts of South Africa we did not visit, and then maybe over, to Namibia and Botswana, and what about Mozambique???
You may think I had been bitten by Africa bug, but no: it was just my new bobotie-addiction starting to kick in.
Now, I simply cannot afford to go all the way to South Africa for bobotie… it would be the most expensive addiction ever!
So I looked “bobotie” up on the internet, and found plenty of detailed recipes from South Africa (in Afrikaans) and shorter recipes from bobotie lovers worldwide, mostly in English.
On a few facts, anyhow, they all agreed: bobotie is made with a lamb and/or beef mince meat, bay leafs, lemon and mango chutney are required. Some recipes also called for sultanas and almonds, others mentioned dried apricots and Granny Smith apples, even tomato. But of course, it was the spice mix that turned out to be the hardest part to figure out. I discovered that in SA a Breyani spice mix exists and it’s readily found in shops, consisting of fennel seeds, cinnamon, aniseed, coriander seeds, dried bay leaf, cloves, cumin and cardamom pods, in proportion that are obviously kept secret.
I did my best to try and recall the flavours I tasted in Cape Town: coriander and cumin? For sure! Fennel seed and aniseed? Just a few… Cinnamon, cloves and cardamom? Always welcome! …and why not add some pepper and some allspice?
It took me some time, and a couple of trials, to crack the right combination… and here it is!

Baked ground beef curry with custard topping

3 slices of sandwich bread
1 cup milk
1 1/2 lb minced beef
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp curry
the Breyani spice mix (I used 1 cinnamon stick, 10 cloves, 5 cardamom pods, 5 allspice, 10 black peppercorns, 1/4 tsp coriander seeds, 1/4 tsp fennel seeds, 1/2 tsp cumin), coarsely crushed
juice of 1 large lemon
4 small fresh lemon leaves, which I substituted with 4 bay leaves
2 Tbsp mango chutney
1 tsp turmeric
3+ large eggs

Combine the bread and milk in a small bowl and let the bread soak for at least 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, melt some butter (I’d say 2 Tbsp).
Add the beef and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly and mashing any lumps, until the meat separates into granules and no traces of pink remain.
With a slotted spoon, set the meat aside, in a large mixing bowl.
In the same killet, gently cook the onions and garlic with the cinnamom stick and the bay leaves, until soft and translucent but not brown (about 5 minutes). Add the curry powder and the Breyani spice mix, and gently cook for 2-3 minutes, until the spices are fragrant. Then add the lemon juice and reduce over medium to high heat.
At this point I usually discard the cinnamon stick and the cardamom pods, but if they don’t bother you, let them be.
Away from the heat, mix the chutney with the spice mixture and pour it into the bowl with the meat. Salt and let cool.
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Drain the bread, squeezing it so that it is completely dry. Sieve and reserve the milk.
Add the bread to the meat. Lightly beat one of the eggs (lightly beaten) and pour it onto the meat bowl, then knead until the ingredients are well combined, as you would do for the meatloaf. In case, add another egg. If the mixture is too wobbly, add breadcrumbs.
Butter a deep 10 in baking dish and pack loosely the meat, smoothing the top, trying to make it even.
Beat the remaining 2 eggs with the reserved milk and enough turmeric to turn the mixture a decided yellow, and mix until they froth (maybe 1 minute). Slowly pour the mixture evenly over the meat and bake in the middle of the oven for 30-45 minutes, or until the custard is a light golden colour.
Serve at once, directly from the baking dish.
Bobotie is traditionally accompanied by begrafnisrys (yellow rice, boiled with cloves and ginger and turmeric)… and yes, I used way too much turmeric!



3 responses to “From South Africa: bobotie

  1. Pingback: My first mango chutney | ricottaforte·

  2. Pingback: Il mio primo chutney di mango | ricottaforte·

  3. Pingback: From France: pounti | ricottaforte·

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