Charlene Smith
Charlene Smith

Giving thanks for places and people: South African-American bobotie in New England

As I get older I become more emotional.

My children scoff, “Pah! You’re kidding, you’ve always been emotional.”

Okay, maybe they’re right. Thank God they’re now older than 16 when they were always right.

It always amazes me that in the few weeks before Thanksgiving the turkeys appear in the streets, in groups or gangs they wander into our yards, scare the cats, disrupt the traffic, roost on narrow fences, and generally take over. But I’ve had a yen for bobotie, a South African dish of Cape Malay origins, I never made it in South Africa, but I know from living in Argentina where I had a desire for koeksusters and spent a day making dozens, that when you’re away from your birthplace you get pangs for the traditional that you never cook, or eat, at home, your other home, the place where you were born.

I asked friends for bobotie essentials and to share their recipes. I carefully compiled their ideas and two recipes into a shopping list but as I shopped and carefully manoeuvred my shopping cart past freezers filled with large, dead turkeys, and eggnog, and cranberry sauce I thought, it’s Thanksgiving, I want to make a bobotie that expresses my love for my two homes: South Africa and the United States and the people that make each country so precious. The people of my heart. So here it is.

  • Take two bagels, representing the Jewish populations, my beloved Beata and Alan Lipman (Jewish communist revolutionaries), Denis Kuny (human-rights advocate, beloved friend), Anthea Parkins (my wonderful MFA adviser), Elisabeth Fontana (a remarkable 91-year-old who fled Hitler, worked for Columbia University and each day reads the New York Times, each week The Economist and each month the New York Review of Books).
  • Soak those bagels in one cup of kefir, a drink that originated in the northern Caucasian regions where so many Jews come from, but also a drink beloved by Moroccans and Arabs. Here Islam and Judaism meet and are at peace.
  • Add three-quarters a cup of black coffee brewed from fresh beans of the sort grown in Ethiopia or Latin America.
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped — a splendid bulb beloved by Mediterranean cultures, fantastic for curing the skin diseases of those living with HIV, as so many in Africa do.
  • Chop, and add, one and a half inches of ginger root. Its cultivation began in south Asia, but if you travel to Zanzibar, its beautiful spiky leaves are found in abundance.
  • Add five tablespoons of curry powder. The first Indians came to South Africa as indentured labourers. Mohandas Gandhi, a young lawyer, was treated so badly by racist South Africans that it inspired in him a spirit of resistance, and satyagraha (love power), a philosophy that transformed the world and ensured the best (in my view) civil disobedience would always be non-violent resistance. In the United States at present, there are more Indian graduate students than in all of India.
  • Half a teaspoon of turmeric, the spice Indian women rub over their bodies when they marry.
  • One teaspoon coriander seeds harvested from my Cambridge deck garden, crushed in a mortar and pestle bought in Zimbabwe.
  • Two red spicy peppers from my garden, split and the seeds removed before being chopped and added to the mix.
  • Third cup of maple syrup grown and processed by my friend Richard Anderson in New Hampshire. If you can’t get Richard’s maple syrup, then get the best you can — and never ever use false maple syrup, only the real thing will do. Ever.
  • 2,25 lbs. minced lamb. How I long for Karoo lamb, the princes of South Africa’s dry, star-filled lands.
  • One teaspoon cinnamon, a most wonderful spice, redolent of Christmas, a comforting scent splendid in hot New England apple cider, a way to increase insulin for diabetics, and a scent that fills the night air of Zanzibar.
  • Four bay leaves in memory of my small bay tree in Greenside, Johannesburg, that grew into a tall bushy tree and which I always thanked as a picked off a sprig of leaves, and for Paul who is learning the meaning of constancy and who said no bobotie is complete without a bay leaf. I like to add these while the mince is simmering, so that the scents within the leaves open and release their fragrance.
  • Zest and juice of one lemon. I’ve always loved citrus and even now in a New England winter with wind howling outside and temperatures at minus six degrees Celsius in my study is a lemon tree fragrant with blossoms, she doesn’t know it’s not her time, and I’m not going to tell her.
  • One tablespoon cumin.
  • One chopped tart apple. The world’s best apples are from New England, but if you are not blessed enough to live here and to select from our variety, then use a Granny Smith.
  • One tablespoon Worcestershire sauce. Yep, British heritage, we know this, and give it short shrift.
  • One cup cranberries — Classic New England mistresses of the swamps. I used fresh cranberries cooked in 2 T apple juice. But you can use raisins fattened in a little water.
  • Two tablespoons mango chutney. Any chutney will do, I prefer homemade chutney and it doesn’t matter whether it is peach, green apple or any other kind.
  • One teaspoon anardana (pomegranate seeds) entirely optional and just because the idea of pomegranate seeds is such an exotic concept to me. It is classic Indian.
  • 1 cup chopped roasted cashews (unsalted) as a nostalgic reference to beautiful Mozambique, the country with the best beach resorts in the world. However, if your tastes are more French, replace with almonds.
  • One tablespoon cayenne pepper fabulous heart friendly spice. If you want more bite to your bobotie add an extra one to two tablespoons. This recipe is suitable for children.
  • One teaspoon dry parsley or three tablespoons chopped fresh parsley.
  • Two tablespoons chopped fresh coriander (optional).

Tear up the bagels into relatively small pieces, pour the kefir and coffee over them and leave to soak in a bowl for at least half an hour, at the end of that time tear up the pieces even smaller and allow to soak.

In a small separate pan cook the cranberries and/or raisins in juice/water for about five minutes.

In a large frying pan put one to two tablespoons cooking oil (corn or canola) in a frying pan, heat and add the chopped onion, garlic and ginger. Fry gently until the onion is translucent, then add the spices, allow to simmer for a few minutes then add the minced lamb and using a fork break and turn until brown.

Slowly add the rest of the ingredients in the order given.

Last of all add the kefir and coffee saturated bagels to the meat and mix with a wooden spoon until all ingredients are incorporated. Ladle into an ungreased pottery or glass baking dish

In a separate bowl beat four eggs then add one cup kefir or coconut milk and beat some more. Pour over the meat. Insert three to four bay leaves in the meat mix and place two red peppers (or chopped peppers) as garnish. Place into an oven 350F for 35 to 50 minutes. Serve hot.

* Thanks to more people than I can list for their recommendations and especially to Jane Hobbs www.scrumptious.co.za and Flor Panoussin for their recipes, Flor’s came from an old, undated edition of the Star newspaper, Johannesburg.

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