Cheap Eats:
  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 Persian.

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 northward.

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 religion (Islam).

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

3 eggs

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 minutes.

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 beneath 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.

Serves 6.


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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