Wonderful Aunts and Bobotie

For how many times I've thought about Bobotie, I certainly can't spell it. (For the record, it can also be spelt Bobotjie.)

When I write a blog post about a historical or culturally-significant meal, I try to research a variety of sources. In the very best circumstances, I find a source who has grown up with the dish and made it many times. In the case of Bobotie, I was lucky enough to be staying with my friend Nell's family in Johannesburg, South Africa, and I had the pleasure of acquiring a 30-year old Cape Malay recipe from her aunt, Yvonne Crichton. 

There is no greater joy in this world than a treasured and historic family recipe.

As the post gets constructed, there are pieces of information floating around: scraps of paper with notes scribbled on them, hyperlinks to news articles, poetic emails with verbiage I appreciate sent to myself. I need to vett through all these fragments when I pull it all together. In the most recent instance, I found a variety of Bobotie misspellings in my inbox, and eventually uncovered a deja-vu in all the variable syntax.

There was an email chain featuring my aunt Pam from last Christmas where she said she would be making a South African dish. My brother responds to the chain with a newspaper article about Bobotie, 

I've eaten this dish before. Enjoyed it (very much.) Forgotten about it. Planned a trip to South Africa. Enjoyed the dish in its natural environment (very much.) Decided to write about it.

It's funny because my primary descriptor for Bobotie is that it's a wonderful comfort food, that tastes like something you've had before. Now I question whether I can fairly use that descriptor if the curry and apricot flavours were, in fact, lingering in my subconscious this whole time.

No, I'll still defend my gut feelings. Bobotie is reminiscent of the warming and compassion that one enjoys in meat loaf, Moussaka, or Sheppard's pie. You've never had it before, but it's familiar.

I'm told that Bobotok was originally an Indonesian dish containing meat with a custard topping cooked in a water bath. Colonists from Dutch East India colonies in Batavia likely introduced this dish to South Africa, with first recipe appearing in a Dutch cookbook in 1609.

Whatever the variation on the recipe, it consists of gently seasoned and spiced ground beef mixed with jams or chutneys and dried fruit. The top layer consists of an egg custard, and the dish is baked as a casserole in the oven. The final result transcends the sum of its parts and takes on a wonderful and warming flavour of its own. 

As a final contingency based on my own personal experience, it would also seem that Bobotie is best enjoyed when made by someone's wonderful aunt.

Bobotie "A true Cape Malay recipe"
Les Palmer (Kindly courtesy of Yvonne Crichton, Johannesburg, SA)

2 large onions
2 lbs mince (meat)
1 level tablespoon curry powder
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons chutney
2 tablespoons apricot jam
2 tablespoons dried apricots
Bay leaves

Add mixture of vinegar, curry powder + sugar + stir, frying it with onions. Add meat and salt. Stir till meat is cooked. Add dried apricots (cut up) then add apricot jam and chutney. Remove from heat.

In the meantime, soak 2 slices of whole wheat bread in milk. Squeeze out the milk and add to bread one egg then put into meat mixture. Add another egg to milk mixture and beat. Set aside.

Put meat into Pyrex dish. Pour milk + egg mixture over to form a custard. Place Bay leaves into the meat with points sticking out.

Bake in a moderate oven at 350F until nicely browned (about 1 hour.) The meat ought to rise and be firm.

Serve with creamed spinach, mashed butternut squash and basmati rice.


  1. Bobotie is really very difficult to pronounce, I have never heard about this before. Bobotok I know it's an Indonesian dish and I don't like it. I will try this one for sure.

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