Bobotie – its origins

Bobotie …

by Mansell Upham

A cursory dip into the extant earlier records reflecting Cape households & their interiors … reveals that there is still much we can dredge up & learn … if we take the time & trouble …

For example: very intriguing are the very few mentions in these earlier records of the actual ‘dish’ (as in utensil) named “boboti(e)” … most likely the real origin of the ‘dish’ (as in variety or preparation of food served as a meal) named “Bobotie” …

For the period (1673-1834) only 7 extant Christian / free-born / emancipated-from-slavery Cape of Good Hope (urban & rural) inventorized colonial households & their kitchens have “ke(e)tels”, “potjes”, “bekertjes” & “cups” which are recorded as having utensils / containers & which are specifically qualified with the adjective `boboti(e)` / `bobote` … as well as the quaint English `boboty`.

In 2 instances the “pan” is made of iron, while the “potjes” are tellingly referred to as “blaauw porcelein” [Japanese imari?] …

As for the owners, they are all what one could term the more wealthy `patrician` & urban & colonial administration types whom we can name individually & also sort by way of hierarchical `respectability` …

Already from this little bit of information, one can deduce … plausibly enough … that we have to do with BOTH spice containers & cooking pans …

We can further deduce that boboti(e) was probably initially a portmanteau Indonesian loanword word … or corruption thereof … for anything dealing with `spice` … from containers to utensils to the food itself … & also that the spice was coming from the East (Batavia & Ceylon) Europeward …

Cape households featuring boboty containers / utensils found recorded in the surviving records of the Cape Orphan Chamber are:


Beatrix LOUW widow of ondercoopman Johannes NEEDER (6 Maart 1752) at Zee Straat [present-day Strand Street in Cape Town]

“1 cooper bobotijkeetel”


oud President van ‘t E:E: Collegie van Burgerraaden deezer plaatze mitsgaders oud lidt van den Edelen Achtbaaren Raade van Justitie deezes Gouvernements Hendrik Justinus DE WET en Margaretha Jacoba SMUTS (9 Junij 1802) op de Heere Gragt [Adderley Street] op de hoek van de Casteels Straat in ‘t Blok C

“zesthien witte aarde bobotie bekertjes, twee en twintig witte aarde bobotie bekertjes & twaalf bobotie kopjes in zoort”


Jacob Pieter DE NEYS opperkoopman en honorair lidt in den Raade van Politie, mitsgaders pro interim fiscaal deezes gouvernements en Johanna Catharina CRUIJWAGEN (29 Augustus 1804) op de Keyzersgragt [St George’s Mall (formerly St George’s Street) – also previously known as Venus Laan] in ’t Blok R

“zes en twintig blaauw porcelain bobotie potjes”


Catharina Maria BLANCKENBERG weduwe den weledelen heer Christoffel BRAND (28 October 1816) op de hoek van de Heeren Gragt [Adderley Street] en Langemarkt Straat, en aldaar No: 24

“een yzere boboti pan”


Elzabe Anthoinetta Jacoba LA FEBRE wed:e Michiel Coenraad GIE (1 Augustus 1817) resident in ’t Blok K:K

“drie en dertig bobotie potjes”


Frans Rynhard BRESLER late member of the worshipful the Court of Justice & Maria Elizabeth BRINK formerly widow to Mr Jacobus Christoffel DE WIT (5 April 1825) resident at Gravestreet N:o 14

“sixteen boboty cups”


Frederik Johannis LIEBENBERG en weduwe Anna Sophia JOOSTE (3 May1827) in Kerkestraat

“8 bobote bekertjes”


Bobotie is the ‘Shepherd’s Pie’ of South Africa’ & is arguably, for all intents & purposes, one of the … if not THE … ‘national dish’ of South Africa.

Every self-respecting mamma has her own recipe or variation of this dish that becomes adopted … is adapted … originates …. at the ‘The Cape’ … the VOC (Dutch East India Company) colonized Cape of Good Hope (1652-1806).

The Cape is ruled from Batavia [Jakarta on Java in Indonesia] & many slaves, convicts & political exiles … culturally ‘Indo-Chinese’ … are brought to the Cape from the Indonesian, Malaysian & the Philippine archipelagos as well as the Indian sub-continent & Ceylon [Sri Lanka] together with exiled Babba / Nonya Chinese convicts.

The Babba / Nonya cultures in Indonesia, Malaysia & the Philippines – a good many 100s of years of Chinese settlement in South-East Asia – contribute significantly to the cuisine of that part of Asia.

Descendants of these slaves / exiles morph into what becomes the respective Afrikaans-speaking so-called ‘Cape Coloured’, ‘Cape Malay’ & ‘Afrikaner’ communities.

Many British-South Africans, too, descend, through inter-breeding, from some of these slave women who effectively in a colony of initially few European women spawn these various interlarding / inter-related communities.

The etymology of the word ‘bobotie’ is not certain – but that it is a corruption of either the Bahasa (the language native to Indonesia, Malaysia & Tagalog in The Philippines) word ‘bobotok’ (the plural for ‘botok’) &/or ‘boeboe’ (meaning ‘spicy’) seems to be the most plausible.

In a country where meat has always been plentiful, bobotie, was traditionally initially made from left-over lamb or mutton … after the best bits had been consumed … that was curried for eating later.

[Mansell Upham]

ceramic container … so-called ‘ginger jar’ but used also for pickles & spices …
Bobotie – ready to serve
The analogous Chawanmushi – Japanese egg custard – note also the separate serving dish for such a relish


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