When conversation turns to traditional South African foods, one of the first to come up is bobotie.
Issue Date: 11 January 2008

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When conversation turns to traditional South African foods, one of the first to come up is bobotie. For hardegat KZN citizens like myself, all masala-curry-chilli combinations mean Indian-inspired cuisine. But bobotie, despite its spicy ingredients, has nothing to do with India and everything to do with the Malay slaves imported to the Cape in the 17th and 18th centuries.

What was once an exclusively Malay recipe has been overlaid with the ingredients and cooking styles of the new homeland, resulting in a dish as Cape-derived as snoek and Jerepigo. To make a good bobotie is a pleasure, especially when you recognise the similarities to a good moussaka. Both are lamb mince under a savoury custard, but the bobotie’s flavour is more complex and interesting.

The beauty of bobotie

To make a nice-sized bobotie sufficient for a whole family, you will need:
• 125ml cream • 125ml plain yoghurt • 2 large eggs • 40ml sunflower or canola oil • 600g lamb mince • 2 large onions • 4 cloves garlic • 2 large carrots • 2 teaspoons jaggery or palm sugar • 50mm whole fresh ginger root • 1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds • 3 teaspoons masala • 50mm whole cinnamon stick • 1, 2 or 3 whole red chillies • 2 slices white bread • 2 lemons

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OK, let’s get moving.

You’ll note A large number of ingredients, indicating not one but several cooking processes. None are difficult; all you need is time, which makes this a perfect dish for the beginner cook who wants to dazzle an audience.

Jaggery or palm sugar is available from Asian supermarkets. If it’s hard to find, use standard brown sugar. The chillies: the number depends on your capacity to enjoy an oral veld fire. Traditionally, Cape food is very light on chilli so use as much or as little as you desire. Remember that removing the pips lowers the flash point.

Peel and mince the fresh ginger and the garlic; peel and thinly slice the onions. Grate the carrots. In a dedicated spice grinder or a mortar and pestle, reduce the coriander and cumin seeds to dust.

Select a large, heavy-bottomed stainless steel frying pan. Pour in the sunflower or canola oil and bring to medium heat.

Add the minced ginger and garlic and stirfry for a minute or two. Add the thinly sliced onions and let sweat until soft and translucent.

Add the minced lamb, stir well to evenly distribute the ingredients and cook until the meat begins to brown. Add the remaining spices, jaggery or sugar and the grated carrots. Season to taste with a little salt and some freshly ground black pepper, plus the juice of one or two lemons. Let your tastebuds make all the big decisions. Reduce the white bread to pulp then add it to the mix.

Pour all this into a shallow oven dish. Whip the eggs with the cream and yoghurt, then pour over the meat and vegetable mixture in the oven dish. Bake in a preheated oven at 180ºC for half an hour or until the custard topping is nicely brown. Bobotie is best served with basmati rice, tomato, onion and chilli sambals and a truly piquant mango pickle atchar. You’ll be amazed how a couple of ultra-chilled pilseners enhance the drama. – David Basckin |fw