Cape Town - Nothing says Cape cuisine like bobotie. That one word, that one dish, sums up the essence of colonial food at the southern tip of Africa. You have all of our combined history, the spiciness of our cultures, the fruitiness of our natures, the nuttiness that it takes to forge a life at the Cape with all its weather, idiosyncrasies and lust for life.
Bobotie rings of Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head. Bobotie sings a ghoema song while it dances langarm. Bobotie has the Cape Doctor at its back and Van Hunks’s pipe twirling a grey plume above it, and when the stormy cold front looms, it is always there to comfort and cheer us while we batten down the hatches and stoke up the fire.
I’m always puzzled when, as frequently happens, somebody with an otherwise good and trustworthy palate remarks, “Bobotie! Oh, I hate that.” Like those who say the same of coriander leaves. How can you not like dhania? I’m similarly puzzled by those who hate raisins and other dried fruits, and who wince and curl their lips when you offer them Christmas cake or a Yuletide mince pie. The same person, for no explicable reason, will tell you they can’t stand marzipan. Or almonds generally, or any nuts. It is. (Nuts I mean.)
Marzipan, coriander leaf and dried fruit are like London and Samuel Johnson’s remark that the man who is tired of London “is tired of life”. There are indeed people who hate London, some of my own cousins included. I just don’t get it. I could spend a lifetime in London and never tire of it. And I am grateful that my palate not only likes but adores coriander and almonds just as my soul is as passionate about the British capital as it is for our beloved Cape Town.
As with all old-fashioned recipes, there is no absolutely perfect one. Some will call for more or less dried fruit such as raisins and apricots, others for less, and some for none at all of one or the other. Some will demand more or less curry spices, and while others will insist the mince should be lamb, others equally insistent that beef is fine, or even a combination of the two.
Quite frankly, it’s your home, your kitchen, your life and your palate, so if you want to make it with beef, then that is the perfect ingredient for your bobotie. And if you argue that your recipe is the best, I for one will not be arguing with you, other than to assert my right to say that mine, too, is equally perfect and correct.
And then there’s the small matter of the price of lamb. Most of us cannot afford – or would rather not spend – the amount of money it takes to acquire a kilogram of minced lean lamb’s meat. Beef is so much cheaper, and anyway, there is no great difference in the texture and flavour of either minced lamb or beef once it has been flavoured with curry spices, almonds, raisins, apricots, lemon or bay leaves and onion.
These are among the ingredients in the traditional old Cape colonial recipe for bobotie that I prefer to use, which is from one of my favourite cookbooks, The South African Culinary Tradition, by the redoubtable Renata Coetzee. You will find it on page 33, on the right-hand side, opposite a grainy, stylised photograph of a dish of her bobotie on a lovely old wooden table adorned with characterful urns, pots and copper jugs. There it is, in the picture which shows my own version before it.
There are ways in which you can up the stakes a little bit, if you feel like sprucing it up for a dinner party, say. I think a serving of bobotie looks (and tastes) great if you toast a few almonds or almond slivers just before serving and scatter them over, perhaps with a sprinkling of finely chopped dhania leaves. You could also garnish it with a sprig of lemon leaves, or with bay leaves.
There are those who will say, no no no, it must be bay leaves, but many old cooks used to use the lemon leaves that are so abundant at the Cape – much more so than the terminally slow-growing bay. I have a bay tree that is about four years old and still it looks like a toddler as trees go.
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tbs butter or oil
2 slices white bread
1kg minced lamb or beef
1 tbs apricot jam
4 tbs lemon juice
75g seedless raisins
10 or 12 dried apricots
2 heaped tbs curry powder
12 almonds in quarters
1 tsp salt
Half tsp pepper
6 to 8 lemon or bay leaves
For Coetzee’s bobotie, saute the finely chopped onion in butter or oil (I use 2 tbs butter) until soft. Soak 2 slices bread in 125ml (half a cup) of milk, and place in a bowl.
Add the minced beef or lamb, the cooked onion, 1 tbs apricot jam, 4 tbs lemon juice (and a little finely grated zest if you like), 75g seedless raisins, 10 or 12 dried apricots, cut into slivers, 2 heaped tbs curry powder/masala, of your choice (I used mother-in-law), and 12 or so almonds cut into quarters. Salt and pepper to taste.
Mix this thoroughly in the bowl, then spoon it into an oven dish and pack it in tightly. Push the lemon or bay leaves into the mince.
Whisk together 125ml milk and 2 eggs, and pour this over the top. Bake in a 180ºC oven for 45 to 50 minutes. Check that the egg is set all over the top before serving with yellow rice, Mrs HS Ball’s chutney and, if you like, some chopped dhania leaves, sliced banana and a scattering of toasted almonds.