Updated: Apr 8, 2019
Bobotie, pronounced "bo-BOOR-tee," is one of my new favourite dishes. We English love a good shepherd's pie and I personally think that bobotie is, at least conceptually, quite similar.
But what is it?
Bobotie is essentially mince beef (that's ground beef for you Americans) cooked with onions, garlic, curry spices, dried fruit, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and chutney. Then it's topped with a savoury custard and baked.
Bear with me, Westerners, because I know you think that sounds disgusting. I was suspicious the first time I tried it too--I was convinced it was going to be disgusting, either flavour- or texture-wise.
I was very, very wrong. Bobotie hits all the flavour marks, from savoury to sweet to umami.
It's a Cape Malay dish, which is to say a dish that originates from the Western Cape area of South Africa. Many years ago, the spice and slave trades brought Malaysian and other Southeastern Asian populations through the Cape of Good Hope, which was a major stop on the spice route. Their cuisine blended with the food the Afrikaans and other locals were making, and the rest is delicious history.
Bobotie has a fair few ingredients. To get started, you need three slices of white sandwich bread with the crusts removed. Put these in a bowl and pour in 375ml of milk. Let it soak while you get going on everything else.
Next is the onion. You need two yellow onions, chopped up into medium-dice. While you're at it, mince four cloves of garlic. I use a wok for bobotie, mostly because it's the pot I have that's big enough. Put it over medium heat and throw in equal parts oil and butter. In with the onion, a big pinch of salt and the same of pepper. If you want a bit of extra background heat (which I do) put in a pinch of crushed chilli flakes. Cook until the onions are translucent, about five minutes.
Then you get in with the spices. I've got some really nice Cape Malay curry spice that I brought home from South Africa when I went with Angelo in January.
Most recipes I've seen call for yellow curry powder, which is readily available pretty much everywhere. Put three teaspoons of this (or more, if you like--I'm in the more camp, which means I usually put in four), a teaspoon of turmeric, and the garlic you minced earlier. Stir it up and let the spices toast for about two minutes.
Now things start to take an interesting turn. First, let's talk chutney. If you see a bottle of Mrs. H.S. Ball's chutney, pick it up. It's delicious. It's also South African and exactly what you need for this recipe. If you can't find this one (for those of us in the UK, you can usually find it with the table sauces at Sainsbury's), go for a fig chutney. It's your closest bet.
About half a cup of chutney goes in, along with a half cup of chopped dried apricots, three tablespoons Worcestershire and three tablespoons vinegar. I'm using apple cider vinegar, but I've seen recipes that call for brown (malt) vinegar. Use what you have on hand. Stir it all together and give it a couple minutes to let the apricots absorb some of the deliciousness going on around them.
Then the beef goes in. You want at least 1 kg... I shopped at Sainsbury's today and they have weird package sizes for meat, so I picked up two 700g packets. So this recipe is getting 1400g of mince beef. Give the beef a generous salt, then break it up with your trusty wooden spoon. Cook until it's browned, then take everything off the heat. Taste it. Adjust the spices and seasoning if needed (e.g., more salt, maybe a bit more vinegar or Worcestershire if it needs a bit of bite to balance the sweetness, or perhaps more curry if the flavour isn't coming through strongly enough for you). Let it cool for about 10 minutes.
While the beef mixture is cooling, preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Get out a large, deep baking dish (something you'd use for lasagna) and grease it with a bit of butter or spray with cooking spray. Put a fine meshed sieve over a large measuring jug. Using a whisk, break the bread that's been soaking in milk up as much as you can, then pour it through the sieve. Shake a bit to get as much milk out as you can, then plop the sieved bread back into its original bowl. Crack an egg into the bread and whisk it in.
Check how much milk you have in the measuring jug. Top it up to 450ml, crack three eggs into it, put in a teaspoon each of salt, pepper, and ground turmeric. Whisk thoroughly, until it's homogenous.
Now, back to the beef. Put in 1/2 cup of sultanas (don't use raisins if you can avoid it; they're too sweet) and the egg/bread mixture. Mix it in quickly--you don't want to give the egg a chance to scramble.
All of this goes into the baking dish you've just prepared. Use your wooden spoon to make sure everything is in a nice, even layer.
Give your milk and egg mixture one last whisk to make sure it's all combined. Very, very gently and slowly pour over the top of the beef. If you pour too fast, you'll end up with a divot in the beef and it won't all cook evenly. Take some bay leaves (fresh, preferably, but dried will work just fine) and stick them, stem end down, into the beef so they're sticking up about halfway through the custard mixture.
And (carefully!) in the oven it goes for about an hour, until the custard on top is just set. You want the slightest wobble in the middle. When you're there, get it out of the oven. Let it sit for five to ten minutes before serving and the residual heat will set the rest of the custard without overcooking it. Bake too long and the texture goes more toward scrambled egg, which is not so nice.
Spoon this up with a bit of coconut rice, and maybe even serve with a bread roll on the side. Heavenly!
Download printer-friendly recipe
3 slices white sandwich bread, crusts removed
375ml milk, plus about an extra 150ml
2 yellow onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
3 teaspoons yellow curry powder
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 cup chutney
1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1kg mince beef, preferably lean (5% fat)
3 tablespoons slivered almonds
1/2 cup sultanas
10-ish bay leaves, preferably fresh
Oil and butter for frying and greasing
Place bread in a mixing bowl and pour over the milk. Leave to soak.
Put a large pot (I use a wok) over medium heat. Heat about 2tbsp each oil and butter, then fry the onion in the oil/butter for about five minutes, until translucent.
Add garlic, curry powder, and turmeric. Stirring constantly, cook for two minutes. Add chutney, apricots, Worcestershire sauce, and vinegar. Cook two more minutes.
Throw in the beef, season it generously, and then break it up with the back of a wooden spoon. Cook until it's no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning/spices if necessary. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F). Get out a large baking dish, grease with a bit of oil or butter, set aside. Put a fine meshed sieve over a measuring jug, pour the bread into the sieve and let the milk drain into the jug. Plop bread back into its original bowl.
Top up the milk in the measuring jug to 450ml (you should have about 300ml left from the bread). Crack three eggs into the milk in the jug, season with 1 teaspoon each salt, pepper, and ground turmeric. Whisk to combine, set aside.
Crack an egg into the soaked bread. Whisk thoroughly to combine.
Add almonds, sultanas, and bread/egg mixture to the beef. Quickly mix together. Spoon beef mixture into the greased baking dish, level out the top.
Carefully and slowly pour the seasoned milk/egg mixture over the top of the beef. Take bay leaves and poke into the beef so they're standing about half up through the custard.
Bake 1 hour, or until the custard is just set. It's ready to come out of the oven when the middle still has a slight wobble. Let stand five to ten minutes before serving.