Hobotee is exceptionally well-traveled.
The dish, which is something like a cross between a meatloaf and a casserole, isn't the most famous curried recipe in the Charleston culinary canon. That honor belongs to country captain, a one-pot meal of chicken, tomatoes, green pepper and currants that probably found its way down from Philadelphia (although an appealing bit of folklore holds that a 19th-century British sea captain traded the recipe for one night's lodging in Savannah). But hobotee is just as venerable as its better-known kin.
Hobotee is likely a corruption of bobotie, an enormously popular South African dish swiped from Indonesia. Seventeenth-century spice traders may have first encountered a related minced meat-and-egg dish in Java, or enslaved Javanese may have prepared versions of it for their captors around Cape Town. In any case, members of the Dutch East India Company took a fanatical liking to bobotie, which evolved to include raisins (likely in deference to the Dutch sweet tooth) and curry powder.
Contemporary bobotie is sometimes compared to moussaka, but as The New York Times' Johannesburg bureau chief decreed in 1981, bobotie is "less creamy and always spicier than its Hellenic analogue. Any reasonable palate, I think, would find it an altogether more interesting dish."
Wherever Dutch colonists and their descendants went, they took bobotie with them. Bobotie recipes have surfaced in Kenya, Argentina and the Caribbean, which might have been the last stop before Charleston's port.
The recipe for hobotee in "Charleston Receipts" calls for meat, onions, milk-soaked bread and eggs, seasoned with curry powder and garnished with almonds. It's the reigning local interpretation of the dish that, in the words of food writer James Vilas, "graced breakfast and dinner tables during the plantation era," since no restaurants currently serve it. (Its only local public showing is on the Chowhound discussion board, where contributor Jon Strother has brought up the topic for discussion.) But according to Vilas, it pairs well with sherry, an affinity that could set the stage for a renaissance since sherry is voguish again.
In "The Glory of Southern Cooking," he writes, "Small ramekins of hobotee make for a unique culinary experience that should never have been allowed to almost disappear."
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