The best bobotie ever…that I made myself.
Of course many other boboties exist, many of them are spectacularly good, but this recipe comes from my sister-in-law and it’s truly the best I’ve ever made. Yet.
Because left to my own devices, I can wreak utter havoc upon bobotie like you can’t believe. I have done so many times up till now, and would have continued, had it not been for my sister-in-law’s timely intervention. I once even had the gumption to serve the abomination I’d created to British dinner guests in London many moons ago, calling it ‘the pride of South African cuisine’.
(They never did become bosom friends really and left rather hurriedly that night, as I recall.)
In my ignorance, I’d always followed an anecdotal recipe from a C. Louis Leipoldt book, with instructions to ‘knead’ the raw meat with the seasonings before baking it in the savoury custard. Time and time again, I’d end up with something that resembled not bobotie so much as a tortoise that had died after prolonged suffering in a sea of curdled grey and yellow bile. And tasted more or the less the same. While Leipoldt’s might have been an interesting historical anecdote, it was horrible food.
Bobotie is an interesting dish, curious not only for its unusual marriage of sweet, savoury, meaty, fruity, custardy, crumbly and spicy components, but also because of its sheer divisiveness. If ever a food war would erupt in South Africa, the Bobotie Wars would be it. Some insist on calling it ‘the national dish of South Africa’, while some (such as I) scoff derisively, saying ‘That’s ludicrous, it’s a Southern Cape regional speciality!’
Some people add grated apple and many add raisins (I’d rather starve than eat raisins in my meatloaf, thank you) and once I even rather unexpectedly got myself embroiled in quite a sensational fight with a highly respected cookery teacher, who almost physically attacked me in front of her students because I refused to concur that mashed banana did, indeed, belong in an ‘official national bobotie recipe’. (Let me just hasten to add the screaming and cussing that day emanated from only one source, and it wasn’t me…)
It’s wasn’t the banana so much that stuck in my craw, as the sheer arrogance of decreeing a national recipe of any kind, but there you go: it seems that bobotie drives people a little bonkers. Which is odd, because it’s the essence of simplicity, really, and the closest that traditional boerekos comes to fast food since it’s usually made from cooked mince that is covered in custard, and then baked for only half an hour.
Ostensibly a spiced meatloaf baked in a savoury custard to serve as a homely supper dish with some accompaniments, its precise pedigree has never been properly and conclusively established. It remains a matter of conjecture, folklore, some rather loose and fast historical research, and huge chunks of sentiment. Some time ago a ‘food historian’ popped up out of nowhere with her thesis on boerekos, instantly setting the cat among the pigeons by roundly refuting most current beliefs – and respected research – about traditional local cuisine at large, and this recipe in particular. In doing so, she ruffled quite a few feathers to say nothing of bruising egos and caused considerable harm in intercultural, cross-cuisinal relations.
The dust still hasn’t quite settled, as can be seen on the comments section of this article published by journalist and food writer Johan Liebenberg, as counter-refutation to the historian’s original refutation: Boerekos
There have also been many lively, lighthearted but very opinionated discussions about the egte, opregte bobotie recipe on my Facebook wall. And so it goes. For me bobotie was always a novelty, something my mother made to enliven the tedium of the endless roasts my father required, and I was particularly fond of the little accompaniments served with it: thinly sliced fresh banana dusted with desiccated coconut, Mrs Balls’ peach chutney, and a sharp tomato and onion sambal generously seasoned with white pepper and white vinegar. I’ve had good boboties and I’ve had bad boboties. I’m hardly the world expert on bobotie, as demonstrated above, but on one thing I will not budge – no raisins in my bobotie. Ever.
Also, beware ready-made boboties sold in supermarkets. Rumour has it they may contain minced cat and other indigestibles, and certainly always too much turmeric which renders it bitter. Better off to buy some lovely fresh mince, and make your own.
Here’s the recipe.
(Note: A kilo of mince feeds my two teenagers amply with a decent-sized portion left over for their dad, although you might have a better outcome with a bigger ratio of adult eaters to teens, who as we know easily consume their own bodyweight in food daily. Cooked bobotie without the custard also freezes well, so you could split the quantity between several smaller containers and freeze what you don’t need immediately. Defrost completely before adding custard, and bake as usual.)
Doreen de Waal’s legendary best-ever Bobotie
2 medium onions, peeled and very finely chopped
2 t (30 ml) oil or butter
1 kg lean beef mince (I like to use a mixture of beef and ostrich)
1 – 3 T (15 – 45 ml) mild curry powder (bobotie is not meant to be fiery or too strongly spiced, but I like using 3 T of La Motte’s curry spice mix)
1 T (15 ml) sugar
2 t (10 ml) salt
1/2 t (2.5 ml) ground white pepper
1/2 T (7.5ml) turmeric
2 T (30 ml) fresh lemon juice or vinegar
4 T (60 ml) Mrs Balls’ chutney
1/2 cup (125 ml) raisins soaked in warm water for at least 45 minutes, then drained (I’ll turn my head the other way while you add this as I find it abhorrent, but some love it)
2 thick slices sturdy white bread, crusts trimmed
1 cup (250 ml) milk
pinch of turmeric, salt and pepper to season custard
4 fresh bay or lemon leaves
1. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and cook the finely chopped onion over medium heat for 5-7 minutes, until softened and translucent.
2. Add the meat and turn the heat up, stirring briskly to ‘crumble’ the meat and brown it without letting clumps form.
3. Add all the curry powder, sugar, salt, pepper, turmeric, vinegar or lemon juice and chutney, and stir through. Add sufficient water to reach the top of the mixture in the pot, and proceed to cook vigorously for at least 20-25 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and the meat has a lovely loose, granular texture. (This is my sister-in-law’s crucially important tip.) Stir well.
4. Preheat the oven to 180 C and grease the inside of a large baking dish with softened butter. Set aside until needed.
5. While the meat is cooking, break the bread into chunks using your fingertips, and place in a shallow dish. Pour over all the milk, and let stand until the bread has absorbed as much of the milk as it can. Place a sieve over a bowl, tip the bread and the milk into it, and press against the soaked bread with a spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. Don’t discard the drained milk – you’re going to use that for the custard later.
6. If you’re using raisins, now is the time to stir them into your cooked bobotie base until evenly spread throughout the mixture. Do the same with the soaked, drained bread, making sure it disperses completely into the meat – no white flecks allowed. The bobotie police will come for you.
7. Spoon the bobotie base into a large baking dish and smooth with the back of a large spoon.
8. Beat the eggs until completely smooth, whisk in the milk, adding the pinch of turmeric, salt and pepper, and pour carefully over the bobotie base. Push the bay or lemon leaves upright into the bobotie and bake at 180 C until golden brown and nicely set on top, about 30 – 40 minutes. Remove and let stand for 15 minutes at least, before serving with rice, sambals and chutney.