This lentil bobotie is the vegetarian version of the South African classic dish that has its roots in Cape Malay cuisine. This vegetarian bobotie recipe is a warm, comforting and nourishing dish, loaded with tender lentils and bursting with exotic flavours. South African bobotie is traditionally made with minced meat, but this vegetarian version is so delicious in taste, easy to prepare and such a great source of protein and fibre it will easily become your new plant-based favourite meal.
What is bobotie?
Bobotie is often considered South Africa’s national dish even though it finds its origins in Cape Malay cuisine. The original dish can be traced back to the 17th century when the Malay were brought to South Africa to work as slaves in the Cape province and who eventually settled permanently in and around Cape Town. Cape Malay cuisine in general plays an important role in everyday South African cuisine such as koeksisters, vetkoek and bredie stews.
Cape Malay cuisine is rich in history and has evolved over the centuries to adapt to the palate of the European settlers for whom these dishes were cooked. The spiciness is relatively mild and most dishes are quite fruity and sweet in flavour. Bobotie is no different, with the main taste being fruity and mildly spicy but very rich in flavour.
Which ingredients to use
Note: All the exact quantities of the ingredients can be found in the recipe card at the bottom of this post.
This list of ingredients might seem long, most of which are spices. But don’t get overwhelmed as the recipe is really easy to make and once you have tried it you will make it over and over again.
- Brown lentils are my favourite to use in this vegetarian bobotie recipe. After cooking in this fruity curry they retain their shape and won’t break down while maintaining their lovely earthy flavour. I always make this South African curry with dried lentils as they take up all the flavour while simmering.
- Onions: Use either white, yellow or red onions. Glaze them in cooking oil to obtain the best sweet and caramelised flavour.
- Garlic and ginger: No good curry goes without chopped garlic and grated ginger. I use fresh ginger and garlic as a preference but powdered will do if you have none at home.
- Cooking oil: Use your cooking oil of choice to sauté the onion, garlic and ginger before cooking the curry.
- Raisins: I prefer to add raisins for some extra sweet flavour. Soak the raisins in water for 10 minutes before adding them to the curry.
- Apricot jam: Add apricot jam to make this curry rich and fruity. If you can find the traditional South African Mrs. Balls Chutney (made with dried peaches and apricots), use this as a preferred choice. But as it is difficult to obtain outside of South Africa, apricot jam is a great alternative.
- Tomato paste: Add just a hint of tomato paste for extra flavour.
- Flaked almonds (optional): I love the sweet and nutty taste of flaked almonds which work really well in this bobotie.
As with many good curries, lots of spices are added. Don’t feel disheartened if you don’t have all these spices at home and also no need to rush to the shops to buy them. Any good curry powders already consist of most of these spices, I just add them for that extra layering of flavour. Use your favourite blend of mild curry powder and add any of the following spices to enhance the taste of the curry: turmeric, ground cumin, ground cinnamon, cardamom pods, all spice or piment, mixed dried herbs.
In general bobotie has a fruity and mildly spicy flavour so depending on the blend of curry powder you use, add extra chilli flakes to spice up the curry, but don’t overdo it.
Traditionally a bobotie curry is baked in the oven and topped with an egg custard before serving. For a vegan bobotie, this step can be omitted. I often serve vegetarian and minced bobotie without the egg custard which is totally fine. The egg custard consists of milk, eggs and spices (salt, pepper, turmeric, curry powder and bay leaves).
- Vegetables: Add diced carrots, butternut, peas or green beans for extra vegetables. Just add them with the other ingredients before cooking the lentils and the curry.
- Tomatoes: Instead of tomato paste, you can add chopped tomatoes if you prefer. Remove the seeds before adding otherwise the curry will become too moist.
- Dried fruit: Instead of raisins you can add other dried fruits like cranberries, apricots, peaches, dates, apples or goji berries. Or add these together with the raisins. When using additional dried fruits, always soak them before adding them to the curry.
Useful tips & tricks to make the best bobotie
- Make sure not to overcook the lentils as the bobotie will become too mushy and not nice to eat. Rather have the lentils cooked ‘al dente’ or with a bit of a bite before baking them in the oven.
- After cooking the curry, transfer the mixture to an oven dish and make sure to even out the top with the backend of a spoon. This is important so the egg mixture stays on top for baking in the oven.
- Don’t add too much water in the beginning when cooking the curry. Rather add more at the end if the lentils are not tender enough. If the bobotie is too watery it will not be dry enough for baking with the egg mixture.
Frequently asked questions
No, there is no need to soak brown lentils before cooking, but you do need to rinse them well to remove any debris or dust before cooking.
Yes you can. As canned lentils are already cooked it will reduce the overall cooking time. Add the lentils with the spices and leave to cook for 5 to 10 minutes. The flavours will be much less intense but still nice enough.
I prefer brown lentils due to their lovely earthy taste and that they retain their shape after cooking. Green lentils are another good alternative. I would not use red lentils are they break down completely. You can however add red lentils together with the brown lentils to thicken the curry.
Definitely not. When using dried lentils there is no need to cook them in advance. Just cook the lentils directly in the curry to obtain the best flavour.
In contrast to the traditional bobotie made with meat there is no need to add slices of bread. The lentils will thicken this plant-based bobotie.
Absolutely, as the flavours will further develop and this fruity curry will taste even better the next day. After preparing, leave to cool and store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 days.
Yes, you can freeze the bobotie for up to 3 months in an airtight container, however, I would only freeze without the egg custard. To re-use, simply leave to thaw in the fridge overnight and re-heat in the microwave or on the stovetop.
This Cape Malay bobotie with lentils is usually served as a main course together with South African yellow rice and various side dishes like this tomato onion sambal, mango salsa and green beans. Additionally, you can serve a dollop of chutney to the side as well as some sliced bananas and toasted grated coconut.
If you prefer, you can serve it with plain basmati rice, Greek lemon rice or even this spicy rice recipe with peppers and tomatoes.
More African recipes to try
- South African chakalaka
- South African grilled cheese sandwich or braaibroodjies
- Mango chicken curry with coconut
- Grilled pineapple spears
- Traditional South African bobotie
Vegetarian lentil bobotie
- 2 cups (or 400 grams) dry brown lentils rinsed well
- 5 cups water
- 2 onions finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1 teaspoon fresh ginger grated
- ½ cup (100 grams) raisins
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 2 tablespoons flaked almonds
- 3 tablespoons apricot jam
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon or 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 teaspoons curry powder mild
- 1 tablespoon dried mixed herbs (oregano basil mix)
- ½ teaspoon all spice or piment
- 3 cardamom pods
- salt and pepper to taste
- 3 eggs
- 2 tablespoons milk
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- salt and pepper to taste
- 4 bay leaves
- Preheat the oven to 365°F or 185°C.
- Place the raisins in a small bowl and leave to soak in water for at least 10 minutes and drain afterwards. Set aside for later.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of cooking oil in a medium-sized thick bottom pot over medium heat and add the chopped onions. Sauté the onions for 2-3 minutes until they are soft and translucent. Add the minced garlic and grated ginger and leave to cook for 1 minute.
- Stir in the lentils, raisins, tomato paste, flaked almonds and apricot jam as well as all the spices; curry, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, allspice, mixed herbs, cardamom and salt. Mix well together and leave to cook for 1-2 minutes. Pour in the water and add salt. Bring to a boil.
- Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat and leave to simmer uncovered. Stir occasionally for 20 minutes until the brown lentils are soft and tender.
- Transfer the lentil mixture into an oven dish. Use the back of a spoon to smoothen the top leaving no openings. The egg topping needs to stay on top and not disappear into the dish.
- In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, turmeric, cumin, salt and pepper. Pour over the lentils in the oven dish and arrange the bay leaves on top.
- Put in the oven and bake until the egg custard is set. This should take about 10-15 minutes.
- Lentils: You can use pre-cooked or canned lentils. In this case, rinse and drain the cooked lentils and stir in the pot together with the raisins, spices and apricot jam. Don’t add water and only cook for a couple of minutes before transferring to an oven dish.
- Add extra chilli flakes or a dash of cayenne pepper to add some heat to the bobotie. This is optional.
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