Daily Archives: April 23, 2011

bobotie

I might as well start off by saying that bobotie is the national dish of South Africa. Yes, they do like a lot of braai (barbecue) too, but various people and organizations have at various times declared flatly that bobotie is the national dish of South Africa, and it seems that there’s not too much argument about this.

So, of course, the first question is, How is bobotie pronounced? Interestingly enough, you can find some quite enormously unhelpful advice and description on some wesbites. On one bulletin board, a fellow told another poster it was like “Bo-boo-t” and then explained “it’s a long ‘o’ sound” and advised finding a South African girlfriend. Several websites say it’s “ba-boo-eh-tee”; others say “buh-booty”; Wikipedia gives a pronunciation guide that will come out like “baw boaty” if, say, a Canadian says it.

All this confusion has to do with accents and with the phoneme of the stressed vowel – it’s really /o:/, a long /o/ sound, but that’s realized as higher than the English [o] and with a bit of a release at the end. (A phoneme is a sound that we think of as a single distinct sound, even if it has a complex realization and varies according to context.) In other words, unless you’re saying it with a South African accent you’re not going to say it quite right, but if you try to say it like the South African way within your own non-South-African accent it’s going to sound wrong because that sound in your own dialect will signify different phonemes.

It’s like if I were to say “Nollins” in a Canadian way in an attempt to reproduce how people from New Orleans say New Orleans: it may sound to me like they’re leaving out the /r/, but they’re not – it just assimilates into the preceding vowel – and so if I say it as “Nollins” rather than “Norlins” I’m producing the wrong set of phonemes.

But anyway, the second question is, where is this word from originally? We can look at it and see the ie on the end, and that’s actually not uncommon for Afrikaans. Words that in English end in -tion will likely end in -sie in Afrikaans, for instance, and words that we have with -y may have equivalents with -ie. But, then, what about this bobo? Is it a word from some African language – perhaps Setswana, in which bo is a prefix for a place, as in Botswana? Or is it a name of some animal, like dik-dik? Or does it come from some European language? Is it related to Afrikaans boet, “friend”?

Actually, it comes from Malay. Yup, like blatjang, this word is a modification of a Malay word, taken from the Cape Malay, people brought to the Cape of Good Hope area from Indonesia and Malaysia as slaves by the Dutch centuries ago. The original dish, it is thought, is a dish of shredded meat and coconut flesh served in banana leaves, called botok. The plural is bobotok – yes, the reduplication is a pluralization. And, as you see, the tok became South Africanized as tie.

But bobotie is also not botok. Nor, for that matter, is it Botox (though I’m told it does a body good), nor booty, nor a boo-boo, nor even bubble and squeak. It’s a sort of meat pie. Well, what it is is minced or ground meat (which kind varies), spiced with curry and typically mixed with onion and some raisins and/or fruit, and baked in a pie dish, with a mixture of milk and egg poured over it towards the end of the baking. And typically eaten with blatjang (q.v.).

So it’s a dish from Malaysia adapted by Dutch and English settlers in Africa, with a name likewise borrowed and adapted. It’s a mixture of borrowed and adapted spices and local ingredients. It’s an import but has been there for centuries now, taking on a distinct local-yet-imported flavour. Sounds very South African to me.