Thursday, May 17, 2012

Into Africa, Part 3: Um, Is That Your Leg I’m Standing On?
What’s cooking? South African Bobotie

The Rovos Rail path through South Africa

I’m such a sucker for train travel. I’ve been hooked since 6th grade, when my friend Carmen and I rode from San Antonio to Austin to visit Carmen’s aunt. I had to wait a LONG time – until arriving post-college in NYC – to get reacquainted with the rails, but once there, I embraced train travel. I rode trains to bridge tournaments in White Plains, on Long Island, and in New Jersey; I caught the LIRR from Manhattan to the Hamptons in the summers; I visited my Aunt Peggy via the train to Old Greenwich, Connecticut, and caught weekends with friends in DC via Amtrak. I didn’t even mind commuter trains, as they afforded me time for a quiet snooze or just unwinding after a long day on Wall Street. But then, train travel is much more the norm in the Northeast.

More recently, my husband and I have had some great vacations by train. We toured a few of the national parks on the American Orient Express, and two summers ago saw the Canadian Rockies by rail. So when our traveling companions for the Africa adventure suggested taking the train from Cape Town to Johannesburg (“Jo’burg” to the cognoscenti), it sounded like a great idea.

The Rovos Rail Company claims to have “the most luxurious train in the world.” I believe them. “The Pride of Africa” was made up of cars that have been lovingly restored to their pre-1941 state but with an eye to modern comfort (like hot showers, hair dryers and shaver plugs in the bathrooms). Wood paneling everywhere and trim polished to a mirror finish – I kept expecting Noël Coward to show up at the bar. And the mandate for formal dress at dinner pretty much solidifies it – no T-shirts and flip-flops here.

You spend your day in the lounges or the observation car, reading or writing or just watching the terrain go from lush green in the wine region through the drier grasslands of the semi-desert Karoo region, and finally into the hills around Jo'burg. Tea and cakes show up in the afternoons, and the bar is always open.

 On the second day, we stopped midday at Kimberley, one of the original diamond boom-towns, where we toured the old mine and saw the Big Hole, the world’s largest manmade excavation.

The only real drawback to train travel, as I see it, is that the sleeping arrangements – unless you go for the royalty suite – can be a bit, er, unusual. On the trip we took to the American West, we had bunk beds. And my husband insisted that I was much nimbler than he, so I would be taking the upper bunk. On this trip, I said I wasn’t taking the upper bunk, so he upgraded us to a queen-sized bed. But the queen-sized bed unfolded from a couch, so the sleeping direction was sideways; i.e., one of us would have to sleep against the wall. I must have lost the coin toss while I wasn’t looking, so any time I had to get up during the night, I had to stand up in bed and step over him. With the train clickety-clacking along, this made for some tricky moves, and a few occasions for shouting in the dark. That’s what he gets for tossing the coin by himself.

The Pride of Africa's dining car.
All the meals were special, but the four-course dinners – with different wines for each course –  were amazing. If the rail part of our trip had been any longer, they’d have had to roll me off the train. I did discover a wonderful dish that is quintessentially South African. It’s called bobotie, pronounced “bo-BO-tee.” It’s essentially a curried meatloaf with a baked custard topping, probably introduced by the Malaysian slaves brought to the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East India Company. It’s now considered by many to be the South African national dish.

The flavors of bobotie are complex enough that – beyond the mango chutney, which is mandatory –  you need only a simple green vegetable to accompany it. Several sources I found also suggest yellow rice, probably because it’s a very juicy dish.

That's custard around the meat, not liquid.

South African Bobotie (adapted from Gourmet Magazine, January 2006)
Serves 6-8.

2 slices firm white sandwich bread
1½ cups whole milk
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for buttering the baking dish
2 medium onions, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and finely chopped (about 1½ cups)
2 teaspoons salt
⅓ cup golden raisins
¼ cup slivered almonds
2 Tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon sugar
2 pounds ground lamb or beef (15% fat), or a mixture of the two
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ - 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
3 large eggs
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350º. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish.

Tear the bread into coarse crumbs and soak them in the milk in a small bowl until very soft – about 15 minutes. Strain the mixture over another bowl, lightly pressing on the bread to remove excess milk. Reserve the bread and milk separately.

Heat the butter in a large (12") skillet on medium-low heat and sauté the onions and the apple with ¼ teaspoon of the salt, stirring occasionally, until the onions and apple are soft, about 12 minutes. Stir in the raisins, almonds, curry powder, and sugar, and continue to cook, stirring, for another minute. Remove the pan from the heat.

In a large bowl, lightly beat one of the eggs. Mix in the ground meat, the bread crumbs, the onion/curry skillet mixture, the lemon juice and zest, 1½ teaspoons of the salt, and the pepper. Blend the mixture with your hands until it is well combined. Try not to overmix. Spread the meat evenly into the casserole. Bake at 350º for 30 minutes.

While the meatloaf bakes, whisk together the reserved milk and the remaining two eggs and the final ¼ teaspoon of salt.

At the end of the 30 minutes, remove the meatloaf from the oven and, with the meatloaf still in the dish, pour off some of the excess fat that accumulates around the meat. Pour the milk/egg mixture over the meat and bake uncovered for a further 15 minutes until the custard is just set and lightly browned.

Serve with mango chutney and white or yellow rice.


  1. sounds like an interesting dish

    1. It's really delicious. And remarkably easy. I thought it was going to take me several hours, but was completely done in less than 2.