A.K.A South African Comfort food!
What I find really interesting in life, is sometimes people you meet you connect with on a simple level, they become “people you know” and then sometimes you meet people who become “Your People”. You know what I mean. “Your people” are the people you connect with, you click with, who open their minds, hearts, homes.
We are away right now (In America again) and this trip we are spending time with two different sets of “Our People”. First our St Louis people, relatively new people, but definitely “Our People”…………….
Last night I was honored to be able to watch my friend Yvette cook a dish, Bobotie, that was obviously so close to her, an old South African recipe that had been adapted by her mother, and in turn was being adapted by Yvette ready to pass onto her daughters.
There is something magical, standing in another persons kitchen, being the observer of a dish which obviously means so much to person cooking it. Hearing their stories that are associated with the dish combined with the smells of spices used in the Bobotie, takes you to a place that allows you to feel just a drop of the emotion associated to this food.
“It is my go to food” Yvette tells me. “When I miss South Africa, when I miss ‘home’, when I need comfort”. Just that one sentence sums up what I now know to be Bobotie. Before we tackle the dish, some history……..
Bobotie is one of the most famous Cape Dutch dishes. It originates from the 17th Century when the Dutch used the Cape Colony in South Africa as a halfway station to the richer colonies in Asia. Malay Slaves, (from modern day Indonesia) were imported to the Cape. Many of the slaves were in effect political prisoners, as they were enslaved for opposing Dutch rule in their homelands.
Many were better educated than their “masters” and often served as house slaves and cooks. This allowed them to introduce wonderful spices from Asia to local dishes.”
Yvette had a recipe book open in front of her, Annette Human’s Seasonal Menus. I was slightly surprised as it was obvious she knew this recipe back to front and inside out. “It’s just there for comfort…… you know to feel connected to the whole dish” she explained. This book, you know just falls open at the Bobotie page.
The pages detailing this recipe have scribbled notes on them “Those are the ingredients my mom added”, the pages are slightly stuck together. “You must use the right South African ingredients. It’s hard sometimes to get them here in the US, but for example, taste this chutney, then taste this one”. Yvette as she is explaining hands me a spoon of Caramilised Onion Chutney, its sharpness, tasted as you would expect a shop bought chutney should. “Yep that’s good” I say. “NO! THIS is the Chutney you need to use” she tells me, handing a spoon of Mrs H.S.Balls Hot Chutney.
I admit, the taste is smoother, sweeter, softer. There is only 3 Table Spoons of Chutney in the dish (6 if you use Yvette’s mom’s recipe – more of which later) but I was assured this really affects the final taste of the Bobotie.
The recipe looks complicated. Split into three groups, a list of ingredients in each group, which need to be assembled then combined to each other. There are jars of spices littering the kitchen, chutney, pastes, milk and eggs, all waiting patiently for their turn to be measured, weighed or combined. This, I think is turning into a wonderful opera.
I watch as Yvette starts the process. In her dish a combination of Ginger, Curry Powder, Turmeric, dried Coriander, Cumin and Cinnamon. Some of the spices I notice are not in the original recipe. “I’ll give you my family recipe” Yvette tells me with her trademark light up the room smile. I ask if it’s a recipe that is ever changing, as she takes her mom’s ideas and adds some of her own. “Yes, I really must write mine down for my girls. Each family you know, has a slightly different adaptation of Bobotie. It becomes their own so each one is slightly different. It’s so adaptable.”
Yvette combines the first list of ingredients, mixing brown sugar into the spices, then chopping some onions, placing them into a pan of oil to soften. then pouring in the spices to coat all the onions. These are fried lightly, the aroma of spices starts to fill the kitchen. I notice Yvette becomes slightly distant, almost as if lost in the smells, the focus of the dish takes her over. “Its important as well to use the right South African Curry Powder. You must use Rajah Curry Powder. Today, I wont add more chili or jalapeno peppers, I don’t want you to be overtaken by the heat, but I want you to taste the real warm spicy Bobotie.”
In another dish, Yvette starts to combine the second group of ingredients. Mrs Balls Chutney, Smooth Apricot Jam, “This should be home made but I just don’t have the time right now” she tells me. “Brown malt vinegar, not white” follows next along with Worcester sauce, Tomato paste, Chili Paste all into the dish and mixed together. This is then poured onto the onions and dry spice mix which is still cooking away gently in the pan. The intensity of the curry now fills the kitchen. Although I had never even heard of Bobotie before, I recognised the smell. It must be the combinations of the spices, there is a lot of history in this curry and I’m beginning to feel this may become one of my go to recipes, something I will reach for to impress dinner party guests, or just to dive into on a cold winters day back in the UK.
Now comes the meat. The traditional recipe calls for beef, but Yvette also brings out some packets of lamb mince. “This is what my mom would use, this is what I use”. The minced meat is not browned first, just added direct to the pan of onions and spices and mixed in. “Don’t brown the meat before adding to the dish,” Yvette tells me, “If you brown it first its too hard, it needs to be soft.” You can see the meat releasing its own oils, adding to the overall flavour. Next, to slices of white bread are soaked in water, squeezed out, and mashed into the meat and onion dish. Yvette catches my look, “I don’t know why……. we just do”. She smiles. I know it’s going to be one of those ingredients that you would be tempted to leave out, after all, two slices of bread into such a huge pot of sauce, but I also know that if you did, the dish would lack something.
After a while, the meat is removed from the pan and placed into a glass roasting dish. Pressed down, firmly. there is far too much for just one dish, and soon a few other dishes are spread around the counter top. Half filled with this deliciously spicy meat. “It’s not that great today. I had to use the wrong chutney. Mrs Balls would have been better…..
But now for the Egg Custard”. I had heard Yvette mention that this curry was served with an egg custard, something she assured me all people pull a face at for the first time, but then, then they taste it, realise how delicious it was.
The egg custard is just simply 2 eggs and about 1/2 a pint of milk, mixed together and poured over the meat. It settles on top, about an inch thick. Into this 2 bay leafs are added, making sure they are pressed through the custard into the meat, and a sprinkling of dark smokey Paprika. The dish is placed into a medium to low oven (Gas mark 4 or 350f) for about an hour. I have to say this is the longest hour you ever wait for a dish.
The egg custard sets and turns a delicious golden brown colour the smell of the curry is light and delicate, but also holds a real earthy undertone. Yvette served us Bobotie with Yellow Rice, white rice, and Salad.
“You have to double the ingredients, it’s something my mom told me and it just makes it richer. Just double the sauce ingredients not the meat”. Yvette passes on some some more information from her family adaptation. “You should wait for it to cool slightly, leave it for 20 minutes if you can so the egg custard on top sets a bit firmer. And you know, the next day, cold, in bread with Chutney it’s good. Not better, just different and good.”
I have to say, I am a Bobotie convert. The deep rich spicy curry flavour. Tastes so mild on the first bite, but leaves you with a deep hot afterglow. Not too uncomfortable, not too hot, but enough to transport you to South Africa, just enough to connect you with all the South African families who have passed this dish down, generation to generation.
I’m looking forward to going home, to my kitchen in leafy Essex, taking the recipe Yvette has kindly passed to me, and maybe adding my flavour, my twists, adapting her recipe to become my Bobotie recipe which I will then pass down through my family.
I must just add, as I am sitting here, recalling last nights feast, I am slowly munching my way through one of the additional dishes of Bobotie which was cooked last night. Yvette is right, its just as good cold, and served in her husbands Squash Rolls!!
And now for the recipe…………
3 medium onions, chopped roughly
Soft Brown Sugar
Ground Ginger, Rajah Curry Powder, Turmeric, Coriander, Cumin, Cinnamon, Salt & Pepper
Peel and chop the onions and soften in the oil over a low heat. Add the spices and curry powder (appx 2-4 teaspoons of each or doubled if using Yvette’s recipe) and salt and pepper and continue lightly frying.
Chutney (Mrs H S Balls)
Smooth Apricot Jam (Home Made is best)
Brown Malt Vinegar
1-2 Chopped Jalapenos (If you like it spicy)
Add all the ingredients together and mix well then stir into the Group A ingredients which are slowly cooking. then add group C ingredients which are:
2 thick slices of good white bread which are soaked, squeezed and mashed into the meat
2.20lbs of minced meat. Beef is traditional, or a mix of beef and lamb (Thank you Yvette’s mom) or beef and pork…. You can also adapt this to a vegetarian dish by adding Lentils and Chickpeas instead of meat
Lemon or Bay Leaves
Mix the raw meat and bread into the now combined Group A and B mixture, stew in the pot for about 15 minutes, stirring often. Press the meat into a glass roasting dish, about half way up. Mix together 2 eggs and 1/2 pint of milk and then pour over the meat. Press in your Bay leaves, sprinkle with Paprika and then bake in a pre-heated oven. (Gas Mark 4 or 350F)
Bake for 1 hour, leave to stand for about 20 minutes and serve. Enjoy……………