Bobotie’s origin goes back to the recipe for Patinam ex lacte of Apicius, who lived in Rome some 2000 years ago. He packed layers of cooked meat in a dish. He added pine nuts, whereas South African add chopped almonds these days. Flavourants mentioned were pepper, celery seeds and asafoetida. The liquid was probably wine or grape syrup. These were cooked until all the flavours had blended, when a top layer of egg and milk was added. When the latter had set, the dish was ready to be served. C. Louis Leipoldt, a well-known South African writer and gourmand, wrote that the recipe was known in Europe in the seventeenth century.
The origin of the word Bobotie is contentious. The Afrikaans etymological dictionary claims that the probable origin is the Malayan word boemboe, meaning curry spices.Others think it to have originated from bobotok, an Indonesian dish which consisted of totally different ingredients. The first recipe for bobotie appeared in a Dutch cookbook in 1609. Afterwards, it was taken to South Africa and adopted by the Cape Malay community.
Today, bobotie is much more likely to be made with beef or lamb, although pork lends the dish extra moisture. Early recipes incorporated ginger, marjoram and lemon rind; the introduction of curry powder has simplified the recipe somewhat but the basic concept remains the same. Some recipes also call for chopped onions to be added to the mixture. Traditionally, bobotie incorporates dried fruit like raisins or sultanas. It is often garnished with walnuts, chutney and bananas. Although not particularly spicy, the dish incorporates a variety of flavours that can add complexity.
The Bobotie recipe was transported by South African settlers to colonies all over Africa. Today, recipes for it can be found that originated in white settler communities in Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia.