The History of Bobotie
Can I tell you all a secret? I’ve never actually liked bobotie. Perhaps that makes me a ‘bad coloured’, or maybe it’s just that I’m not a fan of sultanas. Come to think of it, a number of South Africans don’t care much for bobotie – some aren’t even aware that it’s our national dish. Certain locals have gone so far as to denounce this, claiming that it’s not an apt representation of our nation’s diverse cuisine. Either way, I wanted to get to the bottom of the history of this polarising casserole dish.
After going down a rabbit hole of the origins of bobotie, reading stories of how the Dutch colonists brought it to the Cape and the Malays made it their own, to stories of physician and gourmet, C. Louis Leipoldt, claiming that Afrikaner dishes are not ‘authentic’ as the Dutch appropriated Indonesian cuisine – I have yet to find a concrete source. But it made me think: what does this mean for the preservation of cultures and the stories purveyed?
That might seem a little ‘deep’ to some, but food is deeply personal. Some inherit trust funds, and some inherit valuable recipes, and whether you enjoy shrivelled grapes in your mince or not, bobotie falls under that category.
The History of Bobotie
For those not familiar with bobotie, it’s a casserole dish containing onions, slightly sweetened cooked beef/lamb mince seasoned with curry powder and bay leaves, then topped with an egg and milk custard, and baked in the oven. Bobotie is usually served with turmeric-spiced yellow rice and/or blatjang (chutney) and sambal. Other traditional serving suggestions include sliced banana – perhaps owing to the fact that Indonesia is a tropical country. The tangy flavour of bobotie and similarly, pickled fish, could be due to the use of tamarind in Indonesian cooking, with sugar often used to offset the sour notes.
It’s believed that the dish was named ‘bobotie’ because it is reminiscent of the traditional Javanese dish, bobotok.
Those questioning how bobotie became our national dish, well, it was one of the recipes selected for a cookbook by the United Nations published in 1951, which includes globally recognised dishes – bobotie being one of them. As far as the history of bobotie is concerned, we know that it dates back to the 17th century, and if we wanted to be precise, we could approximate it to the year 1806. But, before we familiarise ourselves with the origins of bobotie, we first need to delve into the history of the Indonesians and the slave trade.
The Dutch East India Company, otherwise known as the Vereenigde Landsche Ge-Oktroyeerde Oostindische Compagnie, was established in 1602, for the purpose of rivalling the Portuguese who dominated the spice trade at the time. They also sought to gain control over British merchants to relinquish the East Asia spice and tea trade. With a government charter granted, they were able to do just that and more. The VOC apparently had ‘exclusive rights’ to the spice trade in East Asia, giving them dominion to essentially ‘go forth and colonise’, enslaving masses of indigenous peoples in the process.
The VOC established their headquarters in Batavia, the capital of Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. They hauled in Javanese and Indonesian political exiles and prisoners who resisted the subjugation of their homeland by the Europeans. Furthermore, they claimed tea and spices, more specifically pepper, clove and nutmeg from the Banda inhabitants. Naturally, they resisted, resulting in the VOC mutilating the Banadanese, and expropriating the island; they also demanded slave labour from neighbouring lands.
In 1949, the VOC directors proposed a mandate, and in 1652, sent Jan van Riebeeck to set up shop at the Cape of Good Hope (now Cape Town), with the purpose of building a refreshment station for crew members travelling between Holland and East Asia. The station was also used to treat crew members suffering from scurvy and other diseases. Mind you, the Cape was never intended to be a colony. Despite the mandate stating that relations were meant to be maintained with the native Khoikhoi and San peoples, van Riebeeck requested the ‘need’ for slaves to ‘help’ build the refreshment station.
The Dutch appropriated Indonesian slaves, many of these people had a vast array of talents, including being silversmiths, cobblers, singers and tailors. Because many of these enslaved peoples (often of Muslim faith) spoke a lingua franca known as ‘Behasa Malayu’ (Malaysian language) and were brought to the Cape of Good Hope, they were referred to as the ‘Cape Malays’. Some of them were assigned as cooks in Dutch households.
Origins of Bobotie
Although the origins of bobotie are rumoured to have Dutch roots – with the earliest recipe apparently recorded in a Dutch cookbook in 1609 – no name has been attached to this recipe. Regarding the nomenclature, it’s believed that the dish was named ‘bobotie’ because it is reminiscent of the traditional Javanese dish, bobotok, which incorporates fresh coconut flesh, vegetables, meat or fish steamed in banana leaves. Although bobotok and bobotie taste nothing alike, the appearance of the meat is similar.
Interestingly, it is believed that the Dutch version originally used lemon leaves. The more popular and current version uses bay leaves – a significant spice in Indonesian and Eastern cooking – but were considered a ‘poor’ ingredient. Bay leaves and curry powder were incorporated to season the meat base of the dish, normally leftover meat and day-old bread is repurposed. Traditionally, the meat would be seasoned with lemon rind and lemon leaves. Mutton or pork was also commonly incorporated in bobotie, and while there is a large Muslim community in Indonesia, there are also non-Muslim communities that eat pork.
Today, bobotie is more commonly made with ground beef and lamb.
As with many cuisines, slaves and immigrants have adapted recipes using indigenous or substitute ingredients and spices to resemble flavours inherent to their culture. My theory is, if it was in fact an original Dutch recipe, the Indonesian cooks probably considered it bland and took some liberties of their own. Today, bobotie is more commonly made with ground beef and lamb, owing to the fact that South Africa has a significant Cape Malay Muslim community. Families have improvised more traditional recipes through the years, and your auntie’s bobotie would probably taste a lot different compared to mine.
It makes sense that South Africa’s national dish would honour the history of the Cape Malays and their lineage. But, with such a diverse demographic, perhaps we should have more than one national dish… I vote tripe and trotters, what’s your contender?
If your auntie doesn’t have a recipe, try our take on The Ultimate Bobotie.
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