Okay, it's official: I think I've just found my new favorite dish.
But that's the most distant place I've traveled to thus far, despite being seriously bitten by the travel bug. Dreams of visiting Thailand, France, Madagascar and Bali, among many others, dance around in my head on a very regular basis. To scratch that wanderlust itch, I "travel" by continuing to try foods from places I hope to visit someday. This gives me a chance to experience these different cultures through their flavors, textures and aromas. One area of the world that has always fascinated me is Africa, particularly its eastern and southern countries. An anthropology nerd, I find most of Africa rich with cultural treasures and a natural beauty like none I've ever known. As a food geek and lover of complex flavor combinations, African cuisine intrigues me more than any other world cuisine: I find it exotic, mysterious, and full of history behind each and every captivating bite.
I had originally intended to try making doro wat, a traditional Ethiopian chicken stew made with a spicy, smoky, red pepper broth. It seemed flavorful and like a true adventure to prepare, but most importantly, it was Poor Girl friendly (gotta stick to that budget!). However, I had invited my mom up for the weekend, and since she is severely allergic to peppers, I didn't want to prepare something she wouldn't be able to enjoy as well. Hellbent on trying my hand at African cooking for this challenge, I did what I always do and gleaned inspiration from my fridge and cupboards to see if there was something I could make that wouldn't require too much in the way of extra ingredient purchases. Several hours of research later, I "traveled" south - way south - and ended up in South Africa, where I was greeted with a traditional dish called bobotie.
Bobotie (pronounced Bo-booh-tee or bah-BOH-tee depending on whom you ask), is a classic South African dish made with minced or ground meat (typically beef or lamb), dried fruits like raisins and apricots, bread, and a generous amount of curry and other spices, all topped with a light egg custard. Often touted as the national dish of South Africa, bobotie actually finds its most ancient roots in Indonesia. First adopted by the Cape Malay community, the recipe eventually made its way to different African colonies as settlers traveled throughout the southern part of the continent. Like most national dishes, there are as many variations of the recipe as there are South African grandmothers cooking it in their own kitchens, making the research I did for this dish fascinating and fun. From slight differences in how much turmeric should go into the dish and when, to varying accompaniments of dried coconut, chutney or sliced bananas, there are many ways to make this dish your own. For my attempt, I actually ended up taking the best tips and measurements from three different bobotie recipes, including good ol' Martha Stewart's version (I had no idea she could get so exotic!).
Bobotie (serves 4-6; total cost per serving: $2.50)
Minced Meat Filling:
1.5 lbs lean ground beef
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1/2 c slivered almonds, toasted
3 T olive oil
1 T curry powder
1/2 t turmeric
1 T ground ginger
3 T apricot preserves
1/2 c raisins
2 slices white bread
1 c milk
2 T fresh lemon juice
2 T fresh lemon zest
Salt & pepper to taste
6 bay leaves
1 1/3 c milk
3 medium eggs
Pinch of salt
Pinch of nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 325°. Butter a 9" x 9" casserole or baking dish and set aside. Heat a large skillet and add the olive oil. When oil is heated, add the diced onions and saute over medium heat for 8-10 minutes, or until translucent and lightly browned. While the onions are cooking, soak the bread slices in the milk and set aside. Add the curry powder, turmeric, ginger, salt & pepper to the onions and mix together well. Next, add the ground beef and nuts, and cook for about 10 minutes, or until cooked through.
Using a fork or clean hands, mash the soaked bread in the milk until it reaches a slightly liquidy paste-like consistency. Pour the mixture into the skillet with the meat and stir to combine, cooking until the mixture slightly begins to brown the bottom of the pan. Add the apricot preserves, raisins, lemon juice and zest, and mix well until everything is completely combined. Remove from heat. Pour the meat & bread mixture into the buttered casserole, smooth with a spatula to create an even surface and bake for about 40 minutes.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, salt and nutmeg until combined. Carefully remove the casserole from the oven and increase the heat to 350°. Gently pour the custard on top of the meat casserole, top with bay leaves, and return to the oven for about 20-25 minutes, until the custard is no longer runny in the middle and set around the edges. Remove from oven and allow to stand for about 10-15 minutes before cutting. Serve with yellow rice and apricot chutney, and enjoy!
Aside from the few minutes of extra labor that the meat grinding and blanching & toasting my almonds incurred, I found bobotie surprisingly easy to make. Really, once all the spices are measured out and the onion chopping is complete, all you're basically doing is sauteeing and baking. I think I found the custard topping the most intimidating because I wasn't sure if it would turn out correctly, but going with my gut and adding that third egg really made the difference. My custard was light, fluffy, and moist, and did not sink into the meat mixture to create a big old mess as I had feared. I definitely recommend adding the bay leaves about halfway through the custard baking, so that they will act as a lovely garnish by not sinking into the custard, while still lending their signature flavor to the dish.
cheater chutney, which was a nice addition but not really necessary as the bobotie itself is just bursting with complex flavors. Smoky, savory and sweet all at once, with the hearty texture of the meat & bread mixture evened out by the delicate fluffiness of the custard, I still can't get over how amazing this dish is! Even my mom said she was "deliriously happy" with the entire meal, a wonderful compliment for any cook to hear. The best part about this is that it's extremely filling, so even if I've written that this will serve 4 to 6 people, it could easily serve about 8 folks. It also makes for amazing leftovers, as it tastes just as wonderfully when it's cold!