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About Potjiekos

Potjiekos (literally meaning pot food) has been part of South Africa’s culture for many centuries – since the days of the first settlement at the Cape when food was cooked in a black cast-iron potjie pot hanging from a chain over the kitchen fire. Later the black pot accompanied the pioneers who moved into the country. As the Victorian era unfolded, so the delights of the bubbling black potjie pot made way for magnificent oven roasts, and later still the traditional braaivleis in the 1950’s and 60’s. The re-emergence of potjie in the late 1970’s coincided with the increase in meat prices at the time, and it was then that food magazines and books started publishing articles on potjiekos cooking and potjie recipes.

It is believed that the potjie came from the Dutch ancestors of the South Africans, who brought with them heavy iron cooking pots which hung from hooks over the open hearth. These cast-iron pots retained heat well and could be kept simmering over a few embers. Rounded, potbellied pots were used for cooking tender roasts and stews as they allowed steam to circulate instead of escape through the lid. The flat-bottomed iron pans heated more quickly and were used to bake crusty loaves of bread in Dutch ovens.

What sets potjiekos apart from these traditional cooking methods, is the fact that it is cooked outside. When the pot was moved from the kitchen hearth to a fire in the open bush, it became a potjie and part of the South African cooking heritage. The most common potjie is the rounded, potbellied, three-legged cast iron pot.

Potjiekos is uniquely South African, and is a friendly food, to be enjoyed by rich or poor, young and old, city-dwellers and country folk, needing only one’s imagination when it comes to selecting the ingredients. Potjiekos is traditionally made around an open fire, preferably in the company of good friends, with one or more Potjies simmering away.

History of Potjiekos

When the first Dutch settlers arrived in the Cape, they brought with them their ways of cooking food in heavy cast iron pots, which hung from the kitchen hearth above the fire.

Long before the arrival of the early settlers in the Cape, the Bantu people who were migrating into South Africa, learned the use of the cast iron cooking pot from Arab traders and later the Portuguese colonists.

These cast iron pots were able to retain heat well and only a few coals were needed to keep the food simmering for hours. They were used to cook tender roasts and stews, allowing steam to circulate inside instead of escaping through the lid. The ingredients were relatively simple, a fatty piece of meat, a few potatoes and some vegetables were all that was needed to cook a delightful meal.

The round potbellied cast iron pot was the perfect cooking utensil to suit the nomadic lifestyle of the black tribes and the Voortrekkers during the 17th and 18th centuries. Potjiekos evolved as a stew, made of venison and vegetables (if the latter were available). The pot with its contents protected by a layer of fat was hooked under the wagon by the Voortrekkers while travelling and unhooked at the next stop to be put on the fire again.

When the wagons stopped at the end of the day and camp was made, game was stewed and sometimes mutton, goat or old oxen when available. As each new animal was shot, it was slaughtered and the meat added to the pot, together with whatever vegetables that could be found. The large bones were added replacing the old ones, to thicken the stew. Surplus meat was preserved by seasoning and drying.

Today, cooking up a potjie has evolved into a unique South African social happening, a tradition almost as popular as the legendary braai. Family and friends are invited and they all settle around the fire with the softly bubbling potjie, chatting, enjoying a drink and having a great time, while the aroma escaping from the potjie, does its work.

The most versatile pot size is a number 3 – depending on the potjie, it will make a meal for 4 – 6 people. After buying a pot, it is important to break it in or cook in to eliminate any iron taste or black deposit on your food. Scour the inside with sandpaper, wash and grease both the inside and outside with pork fat. Now cook in the pot by filling it with leftover vegetables or peels and cooking over a slow fire for a few hours. Repeat the process a few times. When finished prepare your potjie for storage by coating the inside of the pot with a thin layer of fat or cooking oil to prevent rusting. After every meal, rinse the pot with warm soapy water and then coat with oil or fat.

The range of different recipes is as wide as the imagination stretches and every potjie expert has his or her own secrets and special recipes. The best meat to use for potjiekos is what is known as stewing beef, sinewy and gelatinous cuts of beef which become deliciously tender when simmered for a long time, developing a strong meaty flavour. Other meat such as venison, mutton, chicken and even fish make ideal potjies.

The fire is an important part of creating a culinary potjie masterpiece. Unlike a braai, the choice of wood or charcoal does not make much difference, as long as you can regulate the heat. That is done by adding or removing coals once the potjie is heated up. Timing is also very important, apart from the time the potjie needs to become cooked you have to factor in the time it takes for the wood or charcoal to become coals, so in most cases you will have to start long before serving.

You only need a few to keep the potjie simmering. A good idea is to keep a separate fire going to provide the necessary coals. Keep in mind to season or cook-in a new potjie to get rid of any iron filings and other unwanted residue.

The packing of the food in layers is the other important part. The meat usually comes first. Add a dash of cooking oil or some fat in the pot, add the meat and brown thoroughly. This is essential to seal in the flavour and improve the appearance of the meat.

Cook the meat until nearly done. Add onions, garlic, herbs and spices and sauté. Finally add a little red wine or some meat stock, only a small amount of liquid is needed and stir. Most important, do not stir again until the food is ready to be served.

Now pack in the layers of vegetables in order of their cooking times, like carrots and potatoes first and thereafter sweet potatoes, pumpkin, mushrooms etc. Add liquid until about 2 cm under the top layer of vegetables and just leave it for a couple of hours until ready. Add a little liquid when the food tends to cook dry, but only a little at a time as watery potjie is not nice and too much flavour is lost.

When ready, stir once to ensure an even mix of meat and vegetables, dish up and enjoy a memorable meal.

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