Fired with chilies, generously spiced ground beef gets sweetened with raisins, chutney, and almonds, and baked beneath a custardy, egg-and-milk topping. That’s bobotie. This unusual, richly flavored delight is a mega South African favorite that’s grand for special occasions and celebrations.
If you’re Italian, this dish might remind you of lasagne. For Greeks, moussaka would most likely spring to mind. Brits always think it’s a bit like cottage pie. Americans? They’d probably rank it as a sort of deliciously quirky meatloaf.
For sure, bobotie shares some obvious similarities to all those classic ground-meat dishes from Europe and the States. But it definitely doesn’t taste like any of them. It’s one of those rare dishes that fall into an elite category – unique. Yep, unique. Nothing else tastes quite like bobotie.
That one-of-a-kind quality is partly down to how the meat – in this case beef – is spiced and flavored. Cumin, cilantro, cloves, allspice, turmeric, and bay leaves are essentials. As is a spice-mix called masala which blends hot, dried chilies with ground cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, cilantro, cloves, and fenugreek. Our recipe goes for a little more obvious heat by adding some fresh bird’s eye chilies (a.k.a. peri-peri.) That gives the bobotie a noticeable undercurrent of fire, which is the way a lot of South African’s prefer it.
Bring all those exotically spicy elements together with the ground meat, and you have the defining basis for bobotie – curried beef. But, with bobotie, that’s only the flavor-foundation. Raisins, flaked almonds, and a mellow chutney are added to the mix to give a contrasting, fruity sweetness to the richly spiced beef. A little tamarind paste brings in a deep, oh-so-distinctive edge of citrusy tang.
So, tagging bobotie as a sort of curry infused meatloaf is not too far from the mark. That’s especially true because, just like meatloaf, a little creamily smooth, milk-soaked bread is added to the bobotie’s hot and spicy beef.
The egg-and-milk topping
Like meatloaf, bobotie is also a baked dish. The richly seasoned beef is packed into a baking dish to form a flat layer a few inches thick.
That first gets baked in a medium-hot oven before being topped with a simple mix of beaten eggs and milk that’s usually referred to as a custard. You then drop the heat a little and let the bobotie finish baking until the custardy topping just sets. The effect is really similar to cooking a plain omelette in the oven – it’s firm but certainly not crisp, a little golden but certainly not charred.
And it’s that partnership of spicy beef with an omelette-like topping that rightfully earns bobotie the title of unique.
A bit of bobotie back story
Deliciously quirky is a pretty fair description. For a start, bobotie is a mysteriously weird name. It’s sort of pronounced as ba-boor-tee, but nobody is entirely sure where the moniker really comes from.
What’s far more certain is that – as a dish – bobotie is most closely associated with the city of Cape Town. More specifically, it’s rooted in a distinctive style of the city’s cooking that’s known as Cape Malay. And those centuries old roots stretch all the way to a spice-rich part of the world that’s now called Indonesia.
Here’s how all that relates to bobotie. Back in 1652, the Dutch set up a sort of oceanic service station on the southern tip of Africa. It was established to act like a nautical truck stop on their colonizing-cum-mercantile voyages between Holland and what was then known as The East Indies.
Spices were the principal high-earning commodity being sought by the Dutch. But they also figured they could use the Indies’ local people as little more than slave labor to help expand their African pit-stop – which eventually grew to become Cape Town. From that nucleus of forced labor, a distinct, urban society also grew – into a community that became known as Cape Malays. And that community’s cuisine hung on to the culinary traditions and tastes of its homeland – the Indonesia of today.
21st Century bobotie
In modern South Africa, bobotie is undoubtedly an iconic dish. Its widespread popularity means it’s often proudly touted as the national dish, and it’s routinely billed as a poster-child of the country’s cooking. I’m not convinced by either claim – just like I don’t see hot dogs as America’s defining food, or fish and chips as being quintessentially British.
But, like I’ve already stressed, bobotie is unique. And I reckon you’ll agree with me on why that’s true. It is deliciously quirky.
Bobotie with Yellow Rice
For the bobotie
- 6 fresh red bird’s eye chilies roughly chopped, seeds and all
- ¾ pound ground beef I used beef with a fat content of 20% – same as I would to make a fine burger patty
- 2 slices white bread thick slices, crusts removed, and roughly broken into chunks. Bread that’s a little stale is grand, but fresh will do. The loaf-sized slices I used were about 1/3-inch thick.
- 2 cups whole fat milk
- 2 yellow onions medium-sized, peeled, and cut into ¼-inch dice
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 ounces seedless raisins
- 3 ounces flaked almonds
- 2 tablespoons mild chutney I used a mild, sweetish mango variety
- 1 tablespoon ground masala spice mix
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice this sometimes gets tagged as pimenton
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons ground cilantro
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground turmeric
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 ½ teaspoons tamarind paste thoroughly dissolved in 2 tablespoons of boiling water
- 10 bay leaves fresh is grand, but dried will be fine
- 3 eggs medium-sizes, fresh, free-range is best
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons salted butter
- 2 tablespoons sunflower oil or canola oil
Cooking the bobotie
- To begin, set your oven to 350F / 180C.
- Add the bread to a large mixing bowl and pour in 1 cup of milk. Use a bowl big enough to eventually hold the bread, milk, and all the beef. (The other cup of milk is going to get beaten together with the eggs for your bobotie’s topping.) Give the lot a mixing with your fingers so that the bread can absorb the milk.
- Now add the butter and oil to a saucepan set on a medium-high heat. Use a pan that will easily hold all your bobotie’s ingredients, except for the egg-and-milk mix.
- As soon as the buttery oil mix starts foaming, stir in the onions, drop the heat to medium, and let the onions fry gently with a few stirs for about 7 minutes. You want the onions to soften and to just start picking up a little golden color.
- Once that happens, thoroughly stir in the chilies, garlic, salt, black pepper, all the ground spices, tamarind paste and its water, and 4 bay leaves. (The remaining leaves are going to decorate the top of your bobotie.) Keep the heat on medium and let the mix cook gently for 3 minutes with a couple of stirs.
- Mix in the ground beef. Drop the heat to low-medium. You’re aiming to let the whole lot cook until the beef just starts to lose its pinkish-red color. That’ll take about 3 minutes on that low-medium heat – with plenty of regular stirring to break the beef apart and let it brown slightly all over. Good. Remove the pan from the heat – almost time to mix the spicy beef with the milk-soaked bread.
- You’ll need to use your hands to squeeze any excess milk from the bread – and to reserve all that excess milk. Now, you might find there isn’t any excess to squeeze out and keep. That’s fine. If there is any excess, you want to keep it and use it to form the 1 cup of milk for your custardy topping.
- Once the bread is ‘drained’, add all the spicy beef to your big mixing bowl. Mix thoroughly. And I mean thoroughly. You need to make sure that the milky bread gets completely combined with the spicy beef. Completely combined. Good. Time now for some baking.
- Transfer the beef-and-bread mix to a baking dish. The dish needs to big enough to hold all the mix with at least ½-inch spare at the top of the dish. Ideally, you want the mix to form an even, smooth-topped layer about 1½ inches thick. And do take some care to get that smooth, flat top.
- Set the dish on a middle shelf in your 350F / 180C oven. Let it bake for 30 minutes. While that’s happening, you’ll have ample time to prep the custardy topping and make your yellow rice.
- The topping is really easy – simply beat the eggs together with 1 cup of milk. If you did have some excess milk from the bread, use that and top it up to 1 cup with fresh milk.
- Once the 30 minutes’ baking is done, remove the dish from the oven and pour the egg-and-milk mix over the top. Drop your oven’s temperature to 300F / 150C. Now arrange the remaining 6 bay leaves in a pretty pattern on top of the egg mix.
- Return your topped and decorated bobotie to the 300F / 150C oven, and let it bake until the topping sets – that’ll take about 20 minutes or so. Check on the topping, and if it hasn’t set, let it bake for a few more minutes. That’s it. Your bobotie’s done.
Cooking the yellow rice
- For the rice, simply follow the instructions on the pack. The only difference here is that you add the rice and all the other ingredients to the boiling water – all at the same time.
- Let the rice cook as instructed, and that’s it. Your yellow rice is ready to serve alongside your bobotie.
For four people, I’d use a dozen cherry tomatoes cut into a 1/3-inch dice. To that I’d add ½ a medium size yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped into 1/8-inch dice. It’s a very simple sambal to make, and brings in a colorful, fresh-tasting contrast to the richness of the bobotie.