The Battle Over Bobotie

carolines cooking
Image Credit: Caroline's Cooking

Let me start by calming some nerves, in stating that this is not an attempt to decolonise anything. I am not writing this while wearing a red EFF beret. ‘Bobotie’ is a dish that is for everyone by everyone and based on the countless variations that can be found, it truly belongs to all South Africans.

However, regardless of the above disclaimer, I am still a very bis (curious) person. I’m really interested in knowing if my Coloured people are correct in -controversially- calling ‘Bobotie’ an authentic Cape Malay dish. There’s much at stake here; I mean even the United Nations included ‘Bobotie’ as one of the recipes in their 1951 international cook book. Think about it; if aliens ever visit this planet, ‘Bobotie’ is officially one of the recipes that would be shared with them so they could learn more about life on earth!

So who can lay claim to this mince meat, egg based legendary South African recipe? A casual glimpse online seems to show that only two South African groups can be in contention; either the Afrikaners with their European heritage, or the Coloureds with their distinctly Asian roots.

After some digging; my research narrows my opinion down to three possible conclusions, which I’ll explain afterwards:
1. Bobotie is an Afrikaner Dish
2. Bobotie is a Cape Malay Dish
3. Bobotie is a collaborative Afrikaner and Cape Malay creation.


Afrikaner Dish
There is strong historical evidence that suggests that ‘Bobotie’ was a European dish in the 17th century, according to writer C. Louis Leipoldt. Some put it’s European connections much earlier, claiming that a similar dish was already common around 600 AD to 1000 AD. An earlier date supersedes this though; with claims that ‘Apicius’ which is a collection of 3rd or 4th century Roman recipes, shows a recipe which has striking similarity to ‘Bobotie’. This recipe contained an egg covered meat base with pine-nuts instead of chopped almonds, followed by a seasoning of pepper and celery. All of this would suggest that when the Dutch came over to South Africa, they could’ve already had sole cultural claim to ‘Bobotie’.

Cape Malay Dish
Even though Malaysian or Indonesian history would not have been as well documented as Roman history; the conquests and explorations of the East recorded many new cultural artefacts and foods being brought back to Europe. The most popular of these being eastern spices. It was not just limited to condiments, but entire foods like yoghurt or rice -including their preparation- got introduced through the expansion of the Greek and Roman empire. Based on this, it is not hard to see why some are adamant that ‘Bobotie’ was originally an authentic Asian dish; which could even possibly have been an evolution of the Javanese dish still eaten in Indonesia today, called ‘Bobotok’.


My Thoughts:
Now it is quite plausible that the Cape Malay slaves could have put together -with their natural knowledge of spices- a dish similar to what the Dutch slave masters were already eating. However, I find this difficult to believe; seeing that a slave forcibly removed from their own homeland, would rather prepare dishes they were familiar with; as is the case with a majority of other Cape Malay cuisine. Also, the fact that one of the key ingredients in today’s ‘Bobotie’ is Blatjang (Chutney) -a condiment and word of Malay origin; I am more inclined to lean towards the Cape Malay narrative.

So can Bonteheuwel, Bishop Lavis and Bo-Kaap see Bobotie as their Baby, or are my Boere Brasse the Big Brains behind Bobotie? The evidence presented by the latter group is convincing; however, the history showing that Europeans acquired many new foods/recipes from Asia, also adds great credence to my bruin mense’s claim.

For now the Jury is out on this one. I think I may need to travel to Malaysia and Holland for an immersive exploration of historical tastes from the East and Europe. I might do a video documentary of my culinary journey; but for now, if you have any further insight or know any relatives who can shed some more light….please dala what you must.

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