South Africa’s unique culture — and complex history — shines through in everything the ‘rainbow nation’ does. Even the country’s foodways reflect the diverse demographics of people that call the southernmost point of Africa home.
Before the Suez Canal was excavated, Europeans had to sail around Africa to get to Asia for the silk and spice trades. The journey was so long that explorers often ran out of fresh food and water, resulting in scurvy and oftentimes death.
Coastal city Cape Town was established as a logical restocking point, and was soon settled by a number of different European nationalities, including the Portuguese, Dutch and British.
The Dutch brought their love of meat for dinner, leading to boerewors (from the Afrikaans words “boer” for “farmer,” and “wors” for “sausage”); the British brought dishes like cottage pie and sausage rolls; the Indian and Southeast Asian people provided curries, mostly yellow and mild; and the French Huguenots instilled a love for wine and winemaking.
One can’t ignore the political and cultural effect the European settlers had on native populations, and no one is saying that South Africa grew in a way that was free or fair, but over the years, South Africans have taken these influences and made them their own. Dishes have popped up as a blend of this and that, resulting in something distinctively South African.
One such example is bobotie. The dish was most likely brought to South Africa by the Dutch, and then adapted by the Cape Malay. The end product is a sweet, curried minced-meat dish that’s topped with an egg custard. Bobotie (pronounced bah-booh-tea) can be adjusted for taste and preference, whether with lamb or almonds.
It’s traditionally served with yellow rice, sambals and chutney; that’s where the Cape Malay influence comes in. Sambals are chili-based condiments that accompany the dish and used to change the flavor of each bite.
Here’s my favorite bobotie recipe, from my mother.
Chloe Smith’s Bobotie
- 2 1/4 pounds ground beef
- 2 onions, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
- 2 teaspoons medium curry powder
- 2 tablespoons chutney
- 1 tablespoon apricot jam
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 cup milk
- 3 eggs
- 2 slices white bread (crusts removed)
- Salt and pepper to season
- 4 bay leaves
Soak the bread in the milk. In the meantime, heat the oil in a saucepan and fry the onions and garlic. Add the ginger, and allow the onions to become soft and translucent. Add the curry powder and turmeric and cook for 1 minute.
Add the ground beef and toss (don’t stir) to brown. Then add the apricot jam, chutney and stir.
Squeeze the excess milk out of the bread, saving the milk, and add the bread to the meat mixture.
Stir the mixture, then remove from the heat and add one beaten egg. Spoon the mixture into a baking dish and smooth out the top. Cook at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.
Remove from oven. Beat the remaining eggs with reserved milk and pour carefully over the meat mixture.
Stick the bay leaves into the mixture and cook for another 20 to 30 minutes in the oven, or until the custard is set and golden-brown.
Serve with yellow rice, sambals and chutney.
Catch "Parts Unknown" with Anthony Bourdain as he ventures to Johannesburg and the surrounding areas to examine post-apartheid South Africa on October 20, 2013 on CNN.
Emily Smith | CNN