by Shelly Gerrish
When people ask me about South Africa, there are the standard things which come to mind, such as the wildlife, the beauty of nature, and the range of culture. Yet there is an undertone to all of these which is very important to acknowledge if you want to understand a major part of life in this unique part of the world: South Africans love meat. And when I say ‘love’, I mean ‘loooove’, as in “Miley Cyrus looooves hammers”, or “Donald Trump looooves to use the words ‘amazing’, ‘loser’, and ‘huge’.” It’s a visceral thing, one that cannot be ignored or refuted.
So, you can imagine that when I decided to visit my South African love for a month in Cape Town, he was quite amused (and confused) when I showed up as an unsuspecting vegetarian to the land o’ braais (the SA equivalent to our BBQ). You cannot spit there without hitting some kind of animal that’s been made to devour. There’s biltong, a thinly sliced air-dried meat, which comes in all animal varieties- Kudu, Impala, & Springbok, oh my!! Then you have boerewors, a spiced sausage that is coiled up like a thick, phallic snake. On any night of the week, you will find either a poikie kos or a braai in someone’s backyard, both consisting of as much meat as you can handle either in a cast iron cauldron or on a massive manly-sized grill. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise then, when after four weeks of trying to be a good veggie girl, my boyfriend was finally able to gloat in the fact that he converted me to the dark (aka delectable) side of that glorious thing called meat. For our last meal out together, I took him to his favorite restaurant, one that he had avoided because it was pretty much a meat-locker with tables and wine glasses. “I’ll have the lamb shank”, I said cautiously. “…but just to try it!! I’ll only have a bite or two”, I insisted. He stared at me knowingly, trying not to spoil my ardent belief that I was telling the truth. It had been two years since I had tasted the savory tenderness of real, bona fide, non-fake meat on my tongue. I have to imagine that watching me eat on this particular evening was like witnessing the Tasmanian Devil tearing through a WB cartoon. As we sat with full bellies and took stock of the carnage, his eyes beamed at me in awe. He excitedly called over our waiter who was hurrying by, and in a jovial tone motioned for him to take a look at my plate. “Do you see my girlfriend’s plate?” he asked, pointing at the bare naked bone of a lamb shank that was all but licked clean. The waiter guardedly searched my eyes for what was wrong with my meal. He continued, “I’d like to let you know that when she walked in here, she was a vegetarian!” he gloated with pride. That turned out to be just the beginning of my eternal love affair with a man, his country, and its carnivorous ways.
It took six years for me to finally make my way back to the land of meat eaters and manly vehicles. I had just married a different South African (I should have stuck with the first one) and decided to live full time there on a game reserve outside of Jo’burg. On one of our first road trips through the country, we stopped to grab some chow at a local fast food spot called Mama’s. Laid out in neat rows beneath the glass enclosure were scores of small pies; fish pie, lamb pie, steak pie, veggie pie… and then there was a funny sounding pie that I hadn’t heard of before, it was called bobotie. “What’s a BOOTY pie??” I laughed, to which my husband simply responded, “Heaven.” I wasn’t expecting to fall madly for a piece o’ booty on the side of the N1, but that is where my love affair with a little savory pie began. From that day forward, those little bobotie’s came to hold my heart, and as it turns out, they held it far longer than my new husband would.
Back in the 17th century when Dutch settlers came to the Cape, their spice ships shared space with Malay slaves, who are said to have transformed an Indonesian bobotok recipe into what is today known as bobotie. It is a minced meat dish that is both savory and slightly sweet. The mince is seasoned with curry spices and herbs, the milk-soaked bread adds a rich creamyness, and the dried fruits bring their sweetness to balance it all out. But for many, there is one key ingredient that puts the climax in this simple yet sultry pocket of yum: A good bobotie is nuthin’ without some balls! Mrs. H.S. Balls, that is. This hexagonal bottle of peachy chutney is a synonym for home to any resident or ex-pat of South Africa. I will venture to claim that without Mrs. Balls, your bobotie will, ehem, fall limp. It’s the viagra, the 50 shades of Grey, the flavor to your pie’s savor. Fortunately for us here in America, Mrs. H.S. Balls can be found in most non-Safeway-esque markets, with flavors ranging from mild to hot, peachy to keen.
Although there are just about as many recipes for Bobotie as there are impala in the bush, I have chosen a very simple yet savory recipe that gets to the heart of the simplicity of this national treasure. So, bounce to your local market, grab some beef n Balls, and experience one of my favorite tastes of my second home!
- 2 small onions, finely chopped
- 500 g ground beef
- 2 Tbsp curry powder
- 3 Tbsp peach chutney (Mrs. H.S. Balls!!)
- 1 small handful golden raisins
- 1/2 cup apricot jam
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 3 bay leaves
- ½ tsp salt
- 3 eggs
- 2 slices white bread
- ¾ cup milk
- ¼ tsp turmeric
- 4-6 Bay leaves
- Optional pastry shells
- Preheat oven to 350.
- Soak bread slices in a dish with ¾ cup milk.
- Cook onions in a touch of oil until translucent but not browned.
- Add ground beef and cook until browned.
- Add curry powder, chutney, raisins, bay leaves, jam, lemon juice and salt. Stir well and adjust seasoning as needed. Remove from heat.
- Gently squeeze the bulk of the milk from the soaked bread and crumble the moistened slices into the meat mixture, stirring well. Add 1 egg and stir well.
- Beat the remaining 2 eggs in to the leftover milk and add turmeric.
- Scrape meat mixture in to a casserole dish (or distribute into pastry dishes) and flatten the top.
- Pour egg mixture over the meat.
- Cook for 45 minutes or until custard topping is set and lightly golden.