This is a story about two people. Who don’t know each other. Have never met. And will never meet.
Naveed looks tired. It’s cloudy. Looks like it’s about to rain. It’s a Saturday afternoon.
We sit down with the owner of a new coffeeshop. “That’s a really good question,” he says to Naveed. Repeatedly. Because they were really good questions. Their journalistic mettle softened by his gentle demeanor.
He’s tired because he’s had a busy week. On his feet at a conference all week. And hosting a coffee cupping on the Friday. But when I called to ask him to join me today, he didn’t hesitate to say yes.
Because that’s who Naveed is. A giver. I’ll give you another example of his generosity.
One morning he invited me to breakfast. Since I don’t celebrate them anymore, I didn’t notice it coincided with my birthday. When it came time to order from the menu, he said he had a plan. And then he reached into his bag.
Julia was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa on 21 February 1951. It was a Wednesday.
She married her first boyfriend. They had four children. Three girls and a boy. He was the oldest. And according to his sisters, her favorite.
She considered raising children her purpose in life. Her aim: to give them a childhood they wouldn’t need to recover from. She loved them with all her heart. In every way she could.
Her children’s favorite way was her cooking. Because she was an excellent cook. Who made food by taste, not recipes. She ran a modest household. Sometimes peanut butter sandwiches was all she could manage for dinner. But she splurged for special occasions. And on those special occasions, she made a bobotie.
Stories about the origin of bobotie (ba-boor-tee) vary.
Some say it came to South Africa from Indonesia in the seventeenth century. The word bobotie comes from the Indonesian bobotok or botok. A dish made of coconut flesh, vegetables and occasionally meat that is cooked in banana leaf.
Others note the first recipe for bobotie appeared in a Dutch cookbook in 1609. Afterwards, it was taken to South Africa and adopted by the Cape Malay community. Who evolved it into a spiced ground meat dish, baked in an oven with a layer of egg on top. It’s curried and baked with a variety of fruits, balancing sweet and savory flavors. It’s usually served with yellow rice and chutney along with sambal.
Julia perfected bobotie. Made it her own. To anyone lucky enough to taste Julia’s version, there was no better dish in South Africa. To her son, there is no better dish in the world.
A romantic at heart, her son, now a young man, took a German exchange student up a mountain. He had done the hike many times before. He knew the summit had a view of Cape Town she would love. He hoped that view would put her in the right frame of mind. To be agreeable when he suggested they see each other exclusively.
It was a Thursday. Women’s Day. He liked the poetry of that.
It had rained the night before. Rocks glistened in the setting sun. Wild flowers were in full bloom. The scene was set for success.
To impress her, he paused regularly en route to give her perspective on where they were relative to the city. He spoke with conviction about every aspect of the city. He was born there, after all. There wasn’t much he didn’t know about Cape Town.
Ever the gentleman, the man his mother raised, he held out his hand in the tougher spots of the climb. She happily took it. Which tickled him. It was tricky near the summit. The offer of his hand was more of a necessity than it was a romantic gesture. But it tickled him nonetheless when she accepted.
He was falling before he realized he was falling. No pain. Only curiosity. About when he would stop falling.
He woke up to the sound of a young woman screaming in the distance. With a German accent. Still no pain. Only a slight chill on his face. The cool mountain breeze gently kissing his bloodied forehead.
He woke up again to the sound of a helicopter. He was blinded by the spotlight but could make out the silhouettes of two men being lowered towards him. Their calm but urgent enthusiasm reassured him. Perhaps he wasn’t too broken. They talked him through the rescue process. Detailing every step they were taking. They were evasive, however, about one question. Would he be okay? They answered only that he had the best people in the world with him now to get him to hospital soonest. That made him worry.
He woke up again in that hospital. He saw Julia. She smiled through the tears and told him not to worry. “Soon we’ll be home and I’ll make you a bobotie.”
His right foot was crushed at the ankle. His left femur was broken in two places. The little finger on his left hand was cracked below the knuckle. His back was bruised. His head was more bruised. All things considered though, he thought, not a bad result for a 75 meter fall.
The only downside, he concluded, was that he couldn’t move. He needed help to get dressed. He needed help to get undressed. He needed help to bathe. He needed help to go the bathroom. Julia regularly joked that it was nice to take care of her boy again.
The inability to help himself would periodically become too much to deal with. And he would rage. As much as one could rage in a wheelchair. Julia would try her best to calm him. “Would you like me to make you a bobotie?”
The Need for Coffee
He reached into the bag and revealed a glass dish covered in foil. I was curious. Asked him what it was. My birthday gift, he said.
The dish was warm. I tore a sliver into the foil and could immediately smell the spices, the egg, the bay leaf, the ground meat.
I was gobsmacked.
He explained that he and his wife had done extensive research. Looked at many, many recipes. Experimented with a few. Until they found one that resembled how I described Julia’s bobotie. I don’t remember he and I ever discussing this in detail. He said, the true test though, would be the taste. And he made me promise to give my honest opinion.
The first bite reminded me, I told him, of my sisters and I sitting in the kitchen eagerly waiting for my mom’s bobotie, fresh out of the oven, to cool down. The second bite reminded me of how she would cook one every time I visited after having been away for a while. And how she would cook another and store it in Tupperware for me to take with me when I left. The third bite reminded me of how she bathed a 22 year old broken me. Like a baby.
All memories I actively suppressed after she died.
I thanked him. Profusely. Holding back tears. Told him to pass my compliments to his wife. She replicated my mom’s recipe exactly. Every last delicious detail. I was in awe of the gesture. To stem the tide of emotion, I manufactured a laugh. Told him no-one has ever given me a bobotie as a birthday gift.
The birthday gift, he said, wasn’t the bobotie. It was the time with my mom.
Naveed Syed is a husband, father and one of the best writers on the topic of specialty coffee. He has a blog called The Need for Coffee where he shares his specialty coffee journey. Including profiles of the people he meets along the way. He is also a regular contributor to FLTR. Some of the best journalism on this platform. You can read his work here. And for more real-time access to him, you can follow him on Instagram here.