Ground Meat and Custard Casserole
There are actually very few dishes in the world that could be
considered true purebreds. Single foods, such as a yak steak or piece
of coconut, might be considered purely indigenous to a given locale,
but as soon as you make the step up to actual recipes, you find that
you’re dealing primarily with “mixed breeds.”
One aspect of this mixing is, of course, the introduction worldwide
of good ingredients. Foods have been moving across and between
continents for millennia. But there is another level of blending that
is greater than that, and it is the cultural blending that comes out of
the movement of people groups. More than ingredients are introduced;
whole new ways of cooking get transported and integrated.
One classic blend that leaps readily to mind is Cajun/Creole cooking,
that wonderful blend of French/African/Native American ideas and
traditions that has created a hopping hybrid. What we consider Indian
food is very heavily influenced by the Mughals, who were Mongols who
had settled in Persia (Mughal is Persian for Mongol), adopted a lot of
Persian traditions, then swept into India. So though the spices of the
Indian kitchen are largely indigenous, many other ingredients and a lot
of cooking methods of “classic Indian” are actually
South Africa is another example of a land where multiple influences
have become a part of mainstream cuisine. The Dutch began visiting
about 400 years ago, and decided to settle in a little more than 350
years ago. As a half-way point between Europe and the spice lands of
the East, the Cape was soon busy and multicultural. Though the first
settlers objected, traders began bringing slaves from Malaysia and
Java. And though the Dutch government objected, people began spreading
The next big influx of Europeans was after 1685, when the Huguenots
were fleeing France to escape persecution. Then came Germans and other
Europeans. It is from these groups, the Dutch, French, German, and
other Europeans, that the group known as Afrikaners (or Boers) arose.
Later, the British arrived, contributing not only by their own
presence, but also by the influx of people from other parts of the
British Empire, most notably India.
By the early 1800s, slavery had been outlawed in South Africa. People
were moving around and mingling. Many of the indigenous Bantu,
Hottentot, and Bushman people intermarried with Malays and Europeans.
This interweaving gave rise to the group known as the Cape Coloreds,
who adopted Dutch as their language and moved inland with the Dutch and
French Huguenot settlers. But there was a large Malay population that
kept to itself, neither intermarrying with outsiders nor moving inland.
They became known as the Cape Malays. This group, which traces its
roots back to Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, and other islands of the East
Indies, is identified and united by shared language (Malay) and
The Cape Malays have made major contributions to the culinary
traditions of South Africa. Some Cape Malay dishes became mainstays of
South African cooking. The three main dishes that fall into this
category are sosaties, skewered and grilled meats; bredie,
a substantial stew; and bobotie, a meat and custard casserole.
(Ground Meat and Custard Casserole)
1 slice white bread, broken into small pieces
1 cup milk
2 Tbs. butter
2 pounds ground lean lamb or beef
1½ cups finely chopped onion
2 Tbs. curry power (see Notes)
1 Tbs. light-brown sugar
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup lemon juice
1 medium-sized tart cooking apple,
peeled, cored, and finely grated
4 small bay leaves
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Combine the bread
and milk in a small bowl and let the bread soak for at least 10
In a 10- to 12-inch skillet, melt the butter over moderate heat. When
the butter is melted, add the lamb or beef and cook, stirring
constantly. With the back of a spoon, mash the meat, breaking up any
lumps. Continue to stir and break up until the meat has separated into
separate “granules” and has no traces of pink. With a
slotted spoon, transfer the meat to a large bowl.
If you use lamb, you will probably have a bit of fat in the pan. Pour
off and discard all but 2 tablespoons of it. If you use beef,
especially really fresh beef, you’ll probably have a lot of
liquid (beef releases water either during aging or, if not aged, during
cooking). If so, just discard it all, then add 2 tablespoons of butter
or cooking oil to the pan. (You want the next step to be
sautéing, not stewing.)
Add the onions to the fat or oil. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring
frequently, until the onions are soft and translucent. (Watch to make
sure the onions to not burn or brown.) Add the curry powder, sugar,
salt, and pepper. Stir for 1 or 2 minutes, then add the lemon juice.
Raise the heat to high and bring mixture to a boil. As soon as it
boils, pour the mixture into the bowl of cooked meat.
Drain the bread in a sieve over a bowl and squeeze the bread as dry
as possible. Reserve the drained milk. Add the bread, 1 of the eggs,
and the grated apple to the meat. Use your hands or a wooden spoon to
vigorously and thoroughly combine all the ingredients. Taste the
mixture and add more salt if desired.
Pack the meat mixture loosely into a 3-quart soufflé dish,
casserole dish, or other deep baking dish. Tuck the bay leaves
the surface of the meat. Smooth the top with a spatula.
Add the remaining 2 eggs to the reserved milk and beat with a wire
whisk for about 1 minute, or until they froth. Slowly poor the egg
mixture evenly over the meat. Bake in the middle of the oven for 30-35
minutes, or until the custard is a light golden brown.
When done, the bobotie should still be a bit juicy. Bobotie is
traditionally served with white rice, which helps you take advantage of
the juices. Serve the bobotie hot, right from the baking dish.
Madras-style curry powder is the most authentic.
It’s a spicier curry powder than some of the common commercial
blends. If you can’t find Madras curry powder, you can just add a
dash of cayenne to a milder curry powder. Or not, if you don’t
fancy the extra zip.
More traditional than bay leaves are small lemon or
orange leaves. If you can get them, you might want to try them.
However, with two tablespoons of curry powder in this recipe, you
probably won’t find the difference stunning, just more authentic.
The recipe above is traditional Cape Malay bobotie,
but there numerous variations, depending on the tastes and background
of those preparing it. A common variation is the addition of a half a
cup of seedless raisins or currants and a dozen chopped almonds.
I’ve also seen versions where 1 to 3 tablespoons of mango chutney
(or other chutney) are substituted for the apple. To keep it cheap, you
can keep it simple, but for company, it’s nice to know you can
dress it up.
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