International Pie Club: the South Africa Report

International Pie Club, Diversity Division

Stellenbosch

One of the foundational tenants of International Pie Club is cultural sharing and curiosity, (as evidenced by our early meetings with founding members from countries around the planet (see the first Pie Club reviews here)). As shocking and unsettling as it will be for some of us to face, there are parts of the world where savory pie does not serve such a foundational role as it does in New Zealand and Australian culture. This can be challenging. There happens to be a strong correlation between people that depend on a good pie and those that love to travel. The reality I describe, then, simply emphasizes the importance of Pie Club members being culturally open-minded, willing to try food options other than pie – not, I repeat, not to replace pie in our own cultural lexicon, but to strengthen our fortitude, curiosity, and joviality in varying cultural contexts.

With this in mind, one of the commitments of International Pie Club is to explore and consider fulfilling alternative options for pie club members to enjoy when traveling in countries where pie is not so easily available. The point of searching for these alternatives is to locate a food integral to the local culture of the place being traveled that fulfills some small portion of the role that pie would otherwise fulfill. We must of course accept that no other food can usurp the role of pie. To claim so would be ludicrous. However, every culture has had their attempt at achieving the pinnacle that pie has reached and we can strive to locate these alternatives. We can think of this aspect of Pie Club’s mandate as two fold. First of all, the enjoyment of these other foods is importantly a form of cultural exchange. Secondly, it is a sort of proactive Pie Club rescue mission, locating and proscribing necessary nutrients for members before they arrive in country.

Enter babotie.

Babotie

a sampler of South African dishes – a scoop of babotie appears at the top

Babotie originates as a fusion of cultures brought together thanks to the oppressive forces of colonialism. When the Dutch settled into the Cape Town region they began bringing slaves from Malay with them in the 17th-century. Today still, Malay culture permeates the city, shaped by the unique conditions of living in Cape Town. The historical moment has led to a unique Cape Malay community in South Africa, including a Cape Malay predominant neighborhood against the hills overlooking the harbor of Cape Town. The culture also, of course, carries its own unique flavor of cooking and some of the most intriguing restaurants of Cape Town feature the style. At its heart, Cape Malay food is about a balance of sweet, sour, spicy and savory with dishes commonly featuring a mix of ingredients we here in cultures of British descent tend to think of as isolated to separate moments of a meal rather than together in one dish.

Babotie represents the perfect balance of ‘make it work’ utilitarianism with ‘make it delicious’ creativity that, at the heart, savory pie symbolizes. To describe its form simply, babotie brings together layers of meat, spice, bread, and egg. The dish starts with spiced meat, generally either beef or lamb, placed in a ramekan or metal pot, and layers it with chutney and tamarind paste. The combination brings the brightness and sweet spice of chutney with the intriguing sweet and sour accent of tamarind. Alternate forms instead include flavors like ginger, yellow raisin, lemon, and herbs – notice though again the combination of sweet, sour, and spicy in the flavors added to the meat. To help give substance to the dish, dried bread soaked in milk is crushed and mixed in with the meat. Here, the addition of bread, now too hard to eat on its own, provides a filling and grounding element to the dish while also ensuring the pantry is not wasted. Lastly, egg and milk are mixed together and poured over the top as the final layer. After baking, the dish is sometimes topped with nuts and fruits to serve. The result is a wonderful layering of not only flavors but textures.

While babotie loses the transport ease of a hand pie served brown-bag-take-away it certainly carries the satisfying heartiness of savory pie and its ability to satiate a starving body, mend a broken heart, ease a troubled mind, or elevate a wounded spirit. Like pie, babotie is best served during lunch as a necessary pick you up, for dinner at the end of a long day, the next day to recover from a hang over, after sex to nourish your continued stamina, before church to strengthen your spirits during confession, or with a visit to your grandma because everyone loves their grandma.

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