Bobotie: A Dish for All Seasons

By Johan Liebenberg:

You can really enjoy this dish at any time of the year.

But now there’s something autumnal in the air and now’s a good time to sit down to a dish of steaming hot bobotie, its rich, spicy aroma filling the room. But, be prepared, it will fill your heart with pangs of homesickness, because, if anything, bobotie is the one Cape dish that invites a fierce nostalgia.

Bobotie was created more than three centuries ago when the Dutch settlers and the Cape Malay slaves, with their knowledge of spices, arrived at the Cape. It needs no introduction, not really, but for those who do not know, it is made from ground beef, with spices and more spices and curry powder, turmeric and, on top, a delicious layer of ‘custard’ (egg and milk mixture).

But when you get your first taste of this marvellous dish, you are also getting a taste of history, as it were, because when you look at the history of food, you are also looking at the history of the world. And the history of the world, three centuries ago, was dominated by the spice trade over which Portugal, Spain, France, Holland fought bloody sea-wars. Kings were prepared to pay in gold for spices and I read somewhere that pepper, the most sought-after spice of all, was counted out in individual peppercorns. A sack of pepper was worth a man`s life. .

Bobotie is traditionally prepared with yellow rice (with raisins). And, of course, bobotie will not be bobotie if it’s not served with Mrs Balls Chutney, which you can buy at Waitrose. I recently read the history of Mrs Ball’s chutney and was surprised to find that it dates back to 1865. It’s a rather charming story and I’d like to share it here sometime.

Restaurants where you will find bobotie appearing on the menu from time to time is the swish, newly opened Shaka Zulu restaurant in Camden where head chef Barry Vera prides himself in his bobotie and Chakalaka restaurants in Putney and Chiswick. Best check with these restaurants when it’s on the menu.

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  • Gerhard

    Johan,

    I’m not sure if you actually HAD the babotie at Shaka Zulu. If you DID, you wouldn’t be recommending it. It was pretty bland and uninspired, and for £16 I felt robbed! I was embarrassed to take my English mates there (PS: whatever you do, NEVER order the koeksisters. I don’t think they have any idea what a koeksister is supposed to be!)

    Also the restaurant in general feels like it’s going through an identity crises, trying to be wholesome South African AND trendy London restaurant. It doesn’t work.

    Seriously, give Shaka a miss for now. There are far better places to have South African vleis.

    • Johan

      @Gerhard – Don’t shoot the messenger (unless of course the news is particularly bad!) No, seriously, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to comment.
      Actually, I have not been to Shaka Zulu but I knew they served bobotie there, so I was merely providing a bit of a guide. I had a look at the chef’s recipe and it looked promising enough.

      But there is no excuse for a rip-off and, for that matter, a lousy bobotie.

      I got so excited after writing about it, I made it myself, using Michael Olivier’s recipe. Let me know if you’d like me to send you a copy of the recipe!

      It is so simple to do; I can’t understand how Shaka Zulu managed to mess it up. Unforgiveable.

      Oh, and your (and anybody else’s) recommendation on where to enjoy bototie would be more than welcome.

      Cheers

      Johan

  • William Barker

    Actually, genuine Bobotie is made from ground (mince) Lamb!

    • Johan

      @William – Thanks for your input.

      To my knowledge the old Dutch settler wives used Sunday lunch left-overs for their bobotie so it would have been either ground beef or mutton (or lamb).

      Most recipes I’ve seen use ground beef. Michael Oliver’s recipe (mentioned above) which I tried out uses a small portion of mutton which I omitted for the simple reason that mutton tends to contain more fat, hence my preference for beef.

      Have you had a good bobotie in a London restaurant?

      Cheers

      Johan