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South Africa’s Most Important Dish Is Also Its Most Historical

Beyond its sweet, tangy, and spicy flavors, Bobotie is a dish that shares the storied history of South African immigrants in Cape Malay.

In terms of gastronomical variety and quality, South Africa’s a hard country to compete with. There are Xhosa dishes like umngqusho (corn meal and beans) served alongside Indian biryanis, samosas, and fusion dishes like bunny chow (a hollowed-out bread loaf filled with curry). There are Dutch-inspired dishes like koeksisters (similar to doughnuts) or boerewors (a type of sausage), all of which are dishes commonly found across South Africa. Afro-Lusophone condiments like Piri-Piri sauce—commonly made with crushed chilies, lemon, garlic, and more—have become ubiquitous in South African cooking in the span of a few decades.

Of all these dishes, one claims to be the national dish of South Africa amidst a crowded sea of competitors, and that is Bobotie. Bobotie is a spiced ground meat dish, baked in an oven with an egg on top. It’s curried and baked with a variety of fruits that give it a tang and kick, balancing sweet and savory flavors. That’s not all, though: it’s usually served with yellow rice and chutney along with sambal, a Malaysian chili paste. The dish isn’t all heat, and people who are used to fiery Southeast Asian curries may find this somewhat milder. That doesn’t mean it’s boring, though; it’s a whole host of flavors that never crowd each other out, but instead, combine perfectly.

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Bobotie belongs to the Cape Malay community, who live primarily in and around Cape Town. These are Javanese people whose ancestors were enslaved by the Dutch and forcibly brought to the Western Cape as part of the Dutch East India Company’s colonization of the cape. Long after the Dutch East India Company collapsed, the Cape Malay community continues to influence South African life. Cape Malay ingredients have filtered their way throughout contemporary South African cuisine, and this dish is an excellent example. Its history also sheds light on the Cape Malay community more broadly.

To understand this history, you need to look back to the mid-17th century. The Dutch East India Company was one of the most profitable European trading companies in the age of exploration. In terms of economic reach, it went far beyond a trading company: it was akin to an entire supply chain, producing spices, sugar, and coffee and then transporting it to Europe to be sold. Central to this supply chain was the company’s reliance on enslaved labor in plantations. Goods from modern-day Indonesia and Malaysia were especially lucrative, but the voyages from the Netherlands to the company’s territory in Indonesia were long. As many as half of the sailors on a ship could die during the voyage, many from scurvy.

The Cape of Good Hope was a good stopping point for Dutch ships on the long voyage to Batavia (an area that corresponds to present-day Jakarta), and in 1652, the Dutch East India Company established what became the Cape Colony. Weakened by years of fighting and smallpox brought by Europeans, the Dutch colonists seized land from the Indigenous Khoikhoi and began establishing farms at the site. Dutch workers were allowed to purchase plots of land and were then required to sell food back to the company at fixed rates; those crops could then be sold back to passing ships. But this required labor. Dutch landowners maximized their profits by enslaving people to work on their farms.

Some of the enslaved people forcibly brought to the colony were from other parts of Africa, but most came from places where the Dutch had seized land or political power. They were largely from Indonesia, the Philippines, Madagascar, and India. They were often Muslims, and those from Indonesia had often resisted the imposition of Dutch rule but had been captured or forced to surrender. This diverse community became flattened to just the Cape Malays; the name Malay stuck because many of them spoke Malay, a common lingua fraca in Southeastern Asia in that period.

Far away from Indonesia, the Cape Malays were cut off from some of the regular ingredients that they cooked with, such as coconut milk or tamarind, but they were able to use cumin, coriander, rice, and turmeric. Bobotie likely melded with certain European dishes similar to meatloaf, especially once wealthier Dutch settlers began looking for enslaved cooks among the enslaved Cape Malays. The use of these spices soon filtered through much of the cooking done by the Dutch in the Cape: several other quintessentially South African dishes like tomato bredie (tomato soup), sosatie (meat skewers), and koeksisters (spiced pastries) got their spicing and flavor profile from Malay influences.

Out of this mélange, Bobotie was born. Even the name is contested. One theory holds that it’s from the Indonesian bobotok, a coconut flesh dish that would have been difficult to replicate and was thus created with a variety of substitutes. Another theory holds that it comes from the Malaysian boemboe, which was any container for curry spices.

By the 1790s, the Cape Malay community had settled in the Bo Kaap neighborhood of Cape Town, where many still live today. South Africa’s first mosque was established there, and the community retained its strong Islamic faith, drawing more people to the area. Once Britain conquered and annexed the Cape Colony in 1806 and the British began to end chattel slavery, many formerly enslaved rural Muslims moved to the city. Meanwhile, the dish became a staple food among the Dutch in the Cape. These Dutch settlers resented British rule. As they left the Cape to escape British domination and moved farther inland, they brought Bobotie with them. Despite the fact that the Cape Malays overwhelmingly remained in Cape Town, the dish and many other elements of Cape Malay cuisine became a staple of South African life.

Apartheid and white minority rule imposed by the ruling National Party created new forms of systemic racism and discrimination; many were forcibly resettled in Bo Kaap. White South African cultural life remained indebted to the Cape Malays, especially in terms of food: nationalist writer C. Louis Leipoldt maintained that the true origins and inspirations behind South African cuisine came from the Cape Malay community and not European traditions, while other authors tried to appropriate it as a distinctly white South African food.

Today, Bo Kaap faces new challenges as the area is gentrified, often by European investors. Residents in 2019 led a successful campaign to add more buildings as national heritage sites and include private homes as well to stop foreign investment from displacing the people who live there. Unsurprisingly, it’s also home to the best places to sample Cape Malay cuisine and enjoy Bobotie along with a host of other dishes. Bo Kaap Kombuis is one of the best-known restaurants in the neighborhood and a great place to look for Bobotie, but there are others as well like Biesmiellah Restaurant. It’s the perfect way to spend a day in Cape Town, and offers a point to reflect on the country’s storied history.