Bizarre Foods South Africa
“The food here is terrible, and the portions are too small!” – Woody Allen.
Andrew Zimmern could probably shoot an entire series of “Bizarre Foods” in South Africa. Mzansi has some of the wackiest foods on offer anywhere. Just look at this list:
Biltong. Literally translated from Dutch: “Buttock Tongue”. Dried strips of beef, game or ostrich. A much-loved snack.
Bokkoms. Mullet brined and then sun-dried with guts and all.
Braai. Cooking meat over a fire is more than just a variation of barbecue; it is a way of life.
Bunny Chow. Curry in a hollowed-out bread loaf, eaten with fingers using bits of bread to scoop up the filling. Originated in host city Durban when black workers weren't allowed into restaurants.
Chisanyama. IsiZulu for “hot meat”, this is the Black African version of Braai. Diners select raw meat cuts, often to braai themselves in shops or restaurants.
Crocodile. Nile Crocodiles eat many humans in Africa every year, but we eat more of them!
Kop en Pens. A sheep’s head boiled in its stomach.
Monkey gland sauce. Despite the gross name, it is a steak sauce made by adding fruit chutney to BBQ sauce.
Mopani worms. Protein-packed caterpillars eaten dried or fried until crunchy.
Pap. A thick maize porridge which is a staple across Southern Africa. Pap and meat is often served as takeaways on sidewalks.
Rusk. A hard, dry biscuit made with a long shelf life used by South Africa's European settlers. Often dunked into coffee or tea.
Shark Biltong. Salted and dried strips of Jaws & Co.
Smilies. Sheep heads par-cooked and roasted with the heat exposing the sheep's teeth into a grin or smile. Usually found at taxi ranks and downtown city markets.
Termites. Called “rysmiere” (rice ants) in Afrikaans, the Khoisan of Namaqualand love them,
Ulusu. A stew of animal stomachs.
Vetkoek/Amagwinya. Balls of deep fried bread dough. Served plain as street food but also can have sweet or savoury fillings.
Walkie-talkies. Cooked chicken feet and heads – called “Kop en Skop” in some parts. The feet are also known as "runaways".
Here are some interesting facts about some of our most bizarre foods:
The Mopani worm (Gonimbrasia belina) is the larval stage of a large moth found in much of Southern Africa. This caterpillar is an important source of protein for millions of Africans. As implied by its name, the mopani worm is usually found on the Mopani tree, Colophospermum mopane. Worms are black, peppered with round scales in indistinct alternating whitish green and yellow bands, and armed with short black or reddish spines covered in fine white hairs. Males have feathery antennae, which they use to find a mate.
Like most caterpillars, the mopani worm's life cycle starts when it hatches in the summer, after which it proceeds to eat the foliage in its immediate vicinity. As the larva grows, it molts 4 times in its 5 larval stages, after which it is considered most desirable for harvesting. Provided that the larva has not been harvested after its fourth mount, it burrows underground to pupate, the stage at which it undergoes complete transformation to become the adult moth. This stage occurs during winter, and can last for up to 6. The adult moths emerge at the beginning of summer (November or December). They only live for three to four days, during which time they seek to mate and lay their eggs.
Although the mopani worm feeds chiefly on the eponymous tree, it is not limited to this diet, and can feed on many other trees that are indigenous to the same regions as that tree, including the leaves of the mango tree. As the larval stage of the mopani worm is fairly short, in contrast to other browsing caterpillars, the extensive damage to foliage is easily survived by the tree, in time to be replenished for the next generation of mopani worms. Like most caterpillars, the mopani worm is a voracious eater, and will continue to eat - almost non-stop - until it reaches the next stage of its life cycle, when it burrows underground to undergo metamorphosis.
Mopane worms are hand-picked in the wild, often by women and children. In the bush, the caterpillars are not considered to belong to the landowner (if any), but around a house permission should be sought from the resident. When the caterpillar has been picked, it is pinched at the tail end to rupture the innards. The picker then squeezes it like a tube of toothpaste or lengthwise like a concertina, and whips it to expel the slimy, green contents of the gut. The traditional method of preserving mopani worms is to dry them in the sun or smoke them, whereby they gain extra flavour. The industrial method is to can the caterpillars (usually in brine). Tins of mopani worms can be found in rural supermarkets and markets around southern Africa.
Dried mopani worms can be eaten raw as a crisp snack; however, in Botswana people tend not to eat the head. Alternatively, mopani worms can be soaked to rehydrate, before being fried until they are crunchy, or cooked with onion, tomatoes and spices and then served with mealie porridge. The flesh is yellow, and the gut may still contain fragments of dried leaf, which is not harmful to humans. The taste of dried leaves, if not removed, is somewhat reminiscent of tea leaves. Dried mopani worms are frequently canned/packaged in tomato sauce or chili sauce to enhance the flavor.
The harvesting and sale of mopani worms is a multi-million Rand industry in Southern Africa. Typically, the caterpillars are not domesticated, and are picked wherever they occur naturally. Mopane worms are considered to be a profitable harvest, as a mere three kilograms of feed (mopani leaves) will generally yield one kilogram of mopani worms: in contrast, cattle farming requires ten kilograms of feed to generate one kilogram of beef; thus the worms are a low-cost, low-maintenance, high-protein food source.
Harvesting the harvesters. The “white ants” about which Oom Schalk Lourens complained so muchin Herman Charles Bosman’s tales about the Groot Marico were actually not white, nor were they ants. They were in fact harvester termites (Microhodotermes viator), whose nests can be seen in all the arid parts of Southern Africa. Their English name refers to their habit of collecting grass, which is not unique to the family, though. These comparatively large, sighted, social insects form colonies consisting of very large “primary reproductive” (queens and kings), “secondary reproductive” (the flying-ants leaving to start new colonies after summer rains) and sterile males and females (soldiers, workers or nymphs). The queens and kings spend their entire lives in a central spherical hive, surrounded by numerous white nymphs (hence the Afrikaans name rysmier or ‘rice-ant’) which care for the eggs.
Harvester termites prefer the open veld and build conical soil mounds called miershope (“ant hills”) on soil with sufficient clay content. They are voracious foragers, with large colonies capable of removing 1-3 metric tons of forage per hectare. The subterranean part of their nests may be located from near the surface to more than 6 m deep. Loose particles of excavated soil are brought to the surface and dumped at various points around the nest. Soon after rain showers, swarms of flying termites, alates or winged reproductives emerge from their underground nest and undertake a short flight. When sufficiently distant from the parent nest, they land, shrug off their wings and scout about for a mate. The pair then excavate a burrow to start a new colony. A week after swarming, the female lays her first eggs which are tended by the couple, a task soon taken over by maturing workers. After some four months, the nest is sufficiently developed to send foraging workers to the surface. For the next few years, most of the eggs develop into workers and a small number of soldiers. When the nest is sufficiently large, winged reproductives again develop.
The missionary Charles Backhouse first described the importance of the white ant to the “Hottentots” (Khoikhoi) of the North-Western Cape Colony in 1844. He remarked on the resemblance of flying white ants and their "pupae" to rice grains, and described them as quite palatable. He wrote in his diary: “A large nest sometimes yielded a bushel of this ‘rice’. The Hottentots utilise them (the pupae) after their corn supply is consumed. When Hottentots are able to find termites in abundance, they soon become fat, even when previously reduced by hunger.”
Stowe (1905) gave this detailed description of how the pupae were harvested and prepared by the Khoikhoi and San peoples: “The Bushman-rice, as it was termed by the Dutch, or chrysalides of white ants obtained from the ants' nests, was merely gathered in such quantities as sufficed for daily use. This Bushman rice was called 'Kasu' by the Bushmen themselves. To obtain a supply, the nest was opened with a digging stick, called 'Kibi.' The 'eggs' were then taken out and placed upon a small grass mat, made expressly for the purpose, and which was used as a sieve. The 'eggs' were then properly sorted, and placed in a small grass basket or skin bag, and the process was continued until a sufficient quantity was obtained. They were then taken to the cave or camp, when they were placed on the fire, on a flat stone with a little fat, and roasted until they were brown, when they were considered fit for use.”
Getting hold of the termites themselves is a slightly more difficult proposition. A British Army officer describes how they tried to catch flying M.viator reproductives without success, and goes on to say: “Some Hottentot children, noticing our distress, came and offered us whole handfuls of them, and directed us to the spot where they had caught them; our astonishment is not to be expressed when we beheld millions of winged insects issuing into daylight from fissures in the earth, and through the pores as it were of the ground where no opening was perceptible. Near these outlets the children had posted themselves, and collecting the insects as they emerged, greedily devoured them.” The alates thus collected – and not eaten there and then - would be cooked as follows. First they are washed and prepared by removing the wings. Next they are placed in a pan and covered with a small amount of boiling water. They are cooked until the water has evaporated, after which when butter or fat is added to the pan and the termites are fried for a few minutes.
Westernisation and detribalisation brought the Nama Khoikhoi and the San cultures to the brink of extinction, but since 1994 strenuous efforts have gone into helping them maintain their heritage. One such initiative is the promotion of traditional Nama eateries (known as skerms in the local vernacular) where traditional foods like askoek, skuinskoek, vetderms and rysmiere are served to guests. More and more tourists who visit the Namaqualand to see its famous spring flowers are including a meal in a skerm in their itineraries.
When man bites back.Nile Crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) are the largest crocodilians in Africa, sometimes reaching 7 m in length and a weight of 250 kg. They occur throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the Nile Basin, and Madagascar in rivers, freshwater marshes, and mangrove swamps. The crocodile has a well- deserved reputation as a man-eater. Its virtually indiscriminate diet means a villager washing clothes by a riverbank might look just as tasty as a migrating wildebeest. Firm numbers are sketchy, but estimates are that up to 200 Africans may die in crocodile attacks every year.
The diet of the Nile crocodile consists mainly of sluggish fish like catfish and mormyrids, but it will attack almost anything unfortunate enough to cross its path, including zebras, small hippos, porcupines, birds, and other crocodiles. It will also scavenge carrion, and can eat up to half its body weight at a feeding. The Nile crocodile is an ambush predator and can wait for hours, days and even weeks for the suitable moment to attack. They are quite agile, and even swift prey are not immune to attack. The crocodile slowly comes closer, most of its body underwater, sometimes only its eyes and nostrils visible. On other occasions more of its head and upper body is visible. The attack is sudden and unpredictable. The crocodile lunges its body out of water in the blink of an eye and grasps on to its prey. Like other crocodiles, Nile crocodiles have an extremely powerful bite that is unique amongst all animals and sharp conical teeth that sink into flesh allowing for a grip that is almost impossible to loosen. They can apply high levels of force for extended periods of time, a great advantage for holding down large prey underwater to drown.
One unusual characteristic of this fearsome predator is its caring nature as a parent. Where most reptiles lay their eggs and move on, mother and father Nile crocs ferociously guard their nests until the eggs hatch, and they will often roll the eggs gently in their mouths to help hatching babies emerge. Despite the attentive care of both parents, the nests are often raided by monitor lizards or other animals while the adults are temporarily absent. The hatchlings are also protected for a period of time, but hunt by themselves and are not fed by the parents. Sub-adult and smaller adult Nile crocodiles use their bodies and tails to herd groups of fish toward a bank, and eat them with quick sideways jerks of their heads. They also cooperate, blocking migrating fish by forming a semicircle across the river.
Though the Nile crocodile has been hunted since ancient times, hunting reached a peak between the 1940s - 1960s, primarily to satisfy the demand for high-quality leather, although also for meat with its purported curative properties. The population was severely depleted, and the species faced extinction. National laws and international trade regulations have resulted in a resurgence in many areas, and the species as a whole is no longer threatened with extinction. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 individuals occur in the wild. Successful sustainable-yield programs focused on breeding crocodiles for their skins have been successfully implemented in this area.
It was probably inevitable that someone would eventually think of utilising the meat of the crocodiles slaughtered for their skins. In South Africa, only the tail meat is sold commercially. The taste of crocodile meat is similar to chicken and frog’s legs, and some people detect a taste similar to turkey. It is low in fat and high in protein, and should under no circumstances be overcooked, as is the case with lean pork or chicken. Because of its rather bland taste, it combines well with various seasonings and marinades. Some marinades to try are lemon and herb, sweet chilli, fruit chutney and rosemary and garlic.
Crocodile is easy to prepare and cook. It is best cooked from frozen as most of the meat juices escape during thawing, detracting from the flavour. It is best served just about cooked (in red meat terms, medium rare). Remove any excess fat after cooking. When frying, always use butter or olive oil as they will not impart extraneous flavours. Do not use margarine as the hydrogenated fats can emit an unpleasant flavour.
Biltong. The word “biltong” is from the Dutch bil (“buttock” or “rump”) and tong (“tongue” or “strip”). Since time immemorial, mankind has endeavoured to preserve meat. The indigenous peoples of Southern Africa, such as the Khoikhoi, have long preserved meat by slicing it into strips, curing it with salt, and hanging it up to dry. When Jan van Riebeeck and his Dutch settlers arrived at the Cape to establish a “refreshment station” for Dutch spice fleets in 1652, their biggest challenge was the preservation of provisions in bulk. Building up herds of livestock took a long time but with indigenous game in abundance, traditional European curing methods were adapted to preserve the abundant game meat in the Cape’s far hotter climate. This entailed using vinegar, salpeter and spices including pepper, coriander and cloves. The meat was first cured in salpeter brine, then sprinkled with the spices and hung to dry for a fortnight, after which it would be ready for packing in cloth bags. This mildly spiced, decay-resistant air-dried meat sustained the Voortrekkers during their challenging trek away from the British-ruled Cape Colony to the interior of South Africa in the 1830s.
Modern-day biltong-makers sometimes add flavourants like balsamic vinegar, chillies, nutmeg, garlic and Worcestershire Sauce to the original
mixture to add a “personal touch”. Some like it slightly wet with lots of fat, while others prefer it medium or dry and lean, and some enjoy it so dry that pieces can be torn off by hand along the grain of the meat. Some have a preference for biltong
spiced with lots of salt and coriander; others favour a more subtle smack of spices.
While many different types of meat are used to produce biltong, ranging from beef to chicken and game to ostrich, the bulk of the biltong produced in South Africa remains beef biltong.
Biltong should never be confused with American “beef jerky”. Biltong and beef jerky are similar to the extent that they are both spiced, dried meats, but have little else in common. Biltong differs from jerky in the following fundamental respects:
- The meat used in biltong is cut much thicker than jerky meat, which is normally very thin.
- The vinegar and salt in biltong, together with the drying process, cures the meat as well as adding
texture and flavour, while jerky is traditionally dried without vinegar.
- Jerky curing involves brown sugar, which is anathema to biltong lovers. Americans, on the other hand, love the slightly sweet flavour of jerky.
- Jerky is often smoked; biltong is never.
While biltong is usually eaten as a snack, it can also be diced up into stews, or added to muffins or pot bread. Biltong-flavoured potato crisps have also been produced, and there are a number of cheese spreads with biltong flavour. Finely shredded biltong is eaten on slices of bread and in sandwiches, and biltong can be used as a teething aid for babies. Some retail stores offer a mild form of biltong especially for this purpose which does not contain the spices used for mainstream flavouring. Biltong is a high protein food. Often, 200g of beef is required to make 100g of biltong, and the process of making biltong preserves most of the protein content. Some biltong can have up to 67% protein content per 100g of biltong, which is about double what other dried meats like beef jerky have.
Bokkoms are whole, salted and dried mullet (specifically the Southern mullet, Liza richardsonii, commonly known in the Western Cape as "hoarders"), and is a well-known delicacy in the Western Cape. This salted fish is dried in the sun and wind and is eaten after peeling off the skin. It is sometimes referred to as "fish biltong". Bokkoms should not be confused with other cured fish such as salted snoek or Bacalhau(salted Cod). Bokkoms share a common ancestry with North Sea "bloaters", "kippers" and "buckling", which are all lightly salted and smoked for a short period of time. Although the method for making bokkoms was probably derived from European techniques, bokkoms use a different species of fish (the mullet) and do not make use of smoking in preparation of the delicacy.
Bokkoms have been made in the South-Western Cape for over 300 years. In 1658, only six years after the first permanent settlement of Europeans at the Cape of Good Hope, four free burghers were given permission to settle in Saldanha Bay on the West Coast and fish its waters. Their catches would then be sent to the Company's trading post at the Cape of Good Hope to be sold to other burghers as well as to passing ships. One fifth of the catch had to be delivered in salted and dried form, which was how bokkoms originated.
To many “Coloured” South Africans, bokkoms will forever be associated with the infamous “dop” system. Farmers in the Boland and Swartland regions used to pay their workers next to nothing, and their “payment in kind” consisted of cheap wine and bokkoms. Many labourers became alcoholics as a consequence of this cynical practice, and social ills associated with alcohol abuse remain a major societal problem in many communities.
The traditional West Coast way of preparing bokkoms starts with catching juvenile mullets. A large square tank built out of bricks is filled with a potent brine made of around 50 kg of coarse salt and fresh water, to which the fish is added. As soon as enough fish is added to reach the top of the tank, two or three spades full of dry coarse salt is spread on top of the fish. Thereafter more layers of fish and salt are put on top until all the fish is covered in salt. A thick layer of salt is added to the top. This is left for one day. On the second day, a press made with wood with weights on top, is placed on the fish in the tank. The purpose of the press is to ensure that the entrails of the fish are pressed flat so that it does not go bad.
After three days in the tank, the fish is taken out and is then stringed up in bunches of 10 to 25 fish each on a rope, making use of a fish needle which is pushed through the eyes of the fish. The bunches are then dipped 2 to 3 times in fresh water, before it is hung on scaffolds to dry. The most suitable environment for drying is a lot of wind and not too harsh sunlight. At nighttime, the fish is brought under a roof to prevent it from drawing in damp, and the next day it is taken outside again to hang in the sun. The whole drying process takes about 5 days.
Bokkoms is a delicacy unique to the Western Cape Province of South Africa, and specifically the West Coast. Although it has a significant market in the Western Cape (where it is very popular and can be found in hotels, bars, bottle stores, fish shops and beach kiosks, it has not become an everyday sight in the larger part of Southern African butcheries, fisheries and grocery stores like biltong has. It is, however, available for ordering and shipping through the internet in vacuum packed format.
Around 95% of South Africa's bokkoms are produced in Velddrif, in a series of small individual factories located along the Berg River. Each factory has its own small jetty on the river at the front of the factory. In the past, large schools of mullet were caught in the river and the jetties were used as a place to tie the fishermen's "bakkies" (small boats) to unload their catch. Velddrif is the ideal place for the bokkom industry. It has access to large mullet stocks, its weather conditions are ideal for drying the fish (dry summers and relatively low rainfall), and it has access to huge amounts of sea salt from a local factory. It also has access to fresh water in the form of the Berg River. Because of over-fishing, the catching of mullet in the river is now prohibited and it must be netted in the open sea just off Laaiplek.
Bokkoms are a unique, traditional West Coast delicacy, and it is best enjoyed with dry white wine, or with bread, apricot jam and black coffee. It, but can also be used in soups and spaghettis, tapenades, ragout or just as a bite on its own.
Shark Biltong. One of my most pleasant culinary surprises is the night when I fed the entire Chilean Air Force (FACH) officer’s club in Iquique with a Bronze Shark I had caught (on a lure, nogal!). My FACH host officer – a fellow hard-core angler – begged me to eschew my customary catch-and-release ethos, as his people regarded a fresh tiburón (shark) as one of the tastiest fish in the sea. He was right: the boneless shark fillets (marinated in milk to extract any lingering ammonia) tasted almost exactly like well-cooked Kingklip! I had to explain to my FACH colleagues why we were not used to eating shark: South Africans are spoilt.
Because of our country’s location, it has cold, temperate and sub-tropical waters. Its trawlers and line fisherman catch large numbers of pelagic and bottom fish for both local consumption and export. For many years we were so spoilt for choice that angling literature distinguished between “edible fish” and “sharks and rays” as if the latter were vermin. In Europe and the UK, where fish stocks have been under pressure for a long time, sharks are accorded greater respect. In fact, if you don’t specifically ask for cod or hake, the fish you get with your chips and mushy peas in London will most probably be one of the lesser shark species like Tope or Dogfish. Provided the excess ammonia is purged from shark meat, it is a very tasty fish.
In Southern Africa, commercial fishing for cartilaginous fish (sharks, skates and rays) has been slow to develop because of the misconception that sharks are “inedible”. The flesh of many species is in fact very palatable, and can be eaten fresh or dry salted as shark “biltong”. In other parts of the world, sharks and rays are the basis of substantial fisheries for food. A large industry formerly existed for liver oil from various coastal sharks, which is rich in Vitamin A. The advent of laboratory-produced Vitamin A spelled trouble for such fisheries. A dedicated soupfin shark (family Squalidae) processing plant at Gansbaai which once processed sharks for their liver oil has been forced to re-focus its operation on the making of shark biltong. Some of the output is sold domestically, but the bulk exported. A similar business in St. Helena Bay on the West Coast exports shark biltong to several Central African countries, most notably the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Other major markets for our shark biltong include East Africa and the Indian Ocean island nations (Madagascar, the Comores, Mauritius and the Seychelles), where meat is a luxury. Shark meat is preferred fresh but is usually eaten dry-salted because of its longer shelf life and ease of transportation. Ice, cold stores, processing facilities, storing plants and adequate transportation are still scarce in many parts of Africa, and this results in short shelf lives for fresh marine products. Production of salted and sun dried shark meat, however, does not require sophisticated processing and storage facilities. Consumption of shark meat on the African mainland is quite low by international standards, mainly due to the African preference for meat instead of fish. This is equally true of South Africa, where the demand is limited to artisanal fishermen and immigrants from East and West Africa.
Making shark biltong is a tad more complex than, say, making beef biltong. Shark meat has to be very carefully handled and processed due to the presence of urea in the flesh. The urea can be converted to ammonia by bacterial action and its unpleasant odour can be detected, even at low concentrations. It is therefore important that sharks be bled immediately after capture. Small shark are effectively bled by cutting off the caudal fins whilst large sharks can be bled by cutting of the head and putting a water hose into the main vein, thus forcing and washing out the blood. The shark should preferably be gutted as soon as possible, the belly cavity washed and scrubbed with clean water and iced immediately (if possible).
Back on land, fillets of the required size are then cut into 2 cm thick pieces from the shark carcase, and placed in cooled 10% brine solution for 2-6 hours prior to dry salting. Whether the shark meat requires soaking in brine depends on the freshness of the meat and the species of shark. Very fresh shark generally does not require brining, an exception being made for the hammer-head shark which should always be brined. This soaking stage facilitates the removal of ammonia and helps to achieve white dry shark meat. After brining, the fillets are allowed to drain for 10 minutes. Each fillet is individually salted by rubbing fine grain salt into the flesh. When adequately salted, the meat is briefly rinsed in water to remove any remaining surface salt. The salted meat can be dried by either sun drying on sloping racks (and press piling at night) or in a mechanical drier. The meat is dried to about 35% water content, and under favourable conditions a 2 cm thick fillet should be dry within 3-4 days.
Some sharks are more suitable for biltong-making than others. Although taste is inevitably local and subjective, there are a few species whose meat is widely considered of higher quality than others, such as mako, thresher, bronze and dusky sharks. Mako shark is generally recognised as the world’s tastiest shark. Its meat is considered similar in quality to that of swordfish and is sold at similar prices. Smaller species like soupfin shark (vaalhaai) and dogfish (penhaai) are very popular because they contain smaller amounts of urea and mercury than other species and are also easily to process. They do not usually require soaking and the fish are finned, gutted and landed as whole carcasses with the skin intact.
Shark biltong is like bokkom on steroids. The meat is quite tough and very salty, and fans agree that a few swigs of Vaaljapie (cheap, bone-dry white wine) make it much easier to eat. My approach is one of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I won’t go to great lengths to get hold of shark biltong, but when on holiday in Struisbaai it makes a nice snack while I wait for the Rooikrans braai fire burns out.
Kop en skop. Many Westerners would probably cringe at the thought of eating the feet and head of a chicken. In South Africa they’re a common township snack food popularly known as “walkie talkies” or “kop en skop” (head and kick). The “walkies” or chicken feet, also known as “runaways”, are eaten in all nine provinces in South Africa. In Cape Town, in the Xhosa language they’re also called “amanqina enkukhu”. Most of the edible tissue on the feet consists of skin and tendons, with no muscle. This gives the feet a distinct texture different from the rest of the chicken's meat. Their many small bones make them difficult to eat for some; these are therefore often picked before serving. Being mostly skin, chicken feet are very gelatinous.
To prepare for cooking the feet are submerged in boiling water to remove the outer layer of skin. Next they’re covered in seasoning, often curry powder, turmeric, salt and black pepper. Then they’re cooked. Most recipes involve stewing, grilling, frying or “braaiing” (barbecuing). Walkies are high in protein and low in kilojoules. They consist mainly of skin and tendons so their crunchy texture and flavour is different from the rest of the chicken. They can also be enjoyed as a meal with “pap” (a kind of firm Maize mash) and are best eaten by hand.
Kop en Pens. In the depths of the Great Karoo, farm workers and sharecroppers have lived a precarious existence for many years. Money was hard to come by, and the bulk of payments from farmers were of the in-kind variety. Workers would typically receive a sheep for slaughter at the end of the month, and one or two live animals per year. With “tame” meat this hard to come by, the workers – generally of Khoisan descent – augmented their diet with game they hunted or trapped. Typical quarry were steenbok, duiker, hares, rabbits and porcupines. Even carnivores like caracal and jackal were eaten on occasion.
Wat meat was available had to be utilised to the full, including bits not eaten by their white employers. In winter, the hunting season would yield the “pluck” of springbok; in return for herding the buck towards the hunters and slaughtering their victims, the “volkies” (peasants) would receive the lungs, heart and brains. These they would boil with minimal seasoning and eat with bread or streepmuis (soda bread cooked on a grid over open coals; named after the charred stripes left on it by the hot grid.
One of the classic dishes to emerge from the kitchens of these humble folk, and is still eaten today, is sheep’s head baked in a sheep’s stomach. Seasoning consists merely of some salt and pepper, and the dish is moistened by depositing a lump of rendered sheep’s fat in the mouth. The stomach is turned inside out, the head inserted and the stomach sewed shut with thread. The dish is then baked in a moderate oven for 2 – 3 hours and the tender meat divided among the family. I have never eaten it myself, but have enough experience with mutton tripe and baked sheep’s heads to guarantee you that it will taste wonderful. Some of the tastiest, most succulent meat on a sheep are the tongue and cheeks. Lovers of bizarre food should really try this one out!
Bird Beef and Jurassic Eggs. The ostrich (Struthio camelus) is a large flightless bird native to Africa. It is a member of the Struthiuniformes order, along with the kiwi, emu and rhea. It is distinctive in its appearance, with a long neck and legs, and can run at up to about 70 km/h, the fastest land speed of any bird. The ostrich is the largest living bird species and lays the largest eggs of any living bird. It lives in nomadic groups of 5 to 50 birds. When threatened, ostriches run away, but they can cause serious injury and death with kicks from their powerful legs. Their legs can only kick forward. Contrary to popular belief, ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand to avoid danger. This myth likely began with Pliny tge Elder (23–79 CE), who wrote that ostriches "imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed." This may have been a misunderstanding of their sticking their heads in the sand to swallow sand and pebbles, or of the defensive behavior of lying low, so that they may appear from a distance to have their head buried.
Their diet consists mainly of plant matter. Lacking teeth, they swallow pebbles that act as gastroliths to grind food in the gizzard. When eating, they will fill their gullets with food, which is in turn passed down their esophagus in the form of a ball called a bolus. After passing through the neck (there is no crop) the food enters the gizzard and is worked on by the aforementioned pebbles. Ostriches usually weigh from 63 to 145 kg, or as much as two (small) adult humans. At sexual maturity (two to four years), male ostriches can be from 2.1 to 2.8 m in height, while female ostriches range from 1.7 to 2.0 m. During the first year of life, chicks grow at about 25 cm per month. At one year of age, ostriches weigh approximately 45 kilograms. Their lifespan is up to 40–45 years.
The feathers of adult males are mostly black, with a white tail. Females and young males are greyish-brown and white. The head and neck of both male and female ostriches is nearly bare, with a thin layer of down. The long neck and legs keep their head up to 2.8 m above the ground, and their eyes are said to be the largest of any land vertebrate: 50 mm in diameter. This helps them to see predators at a great distance. The wings reach a span of about 2 m, and are used in mating displays and to shade chicks. The feathers lack the tiny hooks that lock together the smooth external feathers of flying birds, and so are soft and fluffy and serve as insulation. Ostriches can tolerate a wide range of temperatures. In much of their habitat, temperatures vary as much as 40°C between night and day.
Female ostriches lay their fertilised eggs in a single communal nest, which is a simple pit, 30 to 60 cm deep and 3 m wide, scraped in the ground by the males. Ostrich eggs are the largest of all eggs, though they are actually the smallest eggs relative to the size of the adult bird — on average they are 15 cm long, 13 cm wide, and weigh 1.4 kg, over 20 times the weight of a chicken's egg and only 1 to 4% the size of the female. They are glossy cream-coloured, with thick shells marked by small pits. The eggs are incubated by the females by day and by the males by night. This uses the colouration of the two sexes to escape detection of the nest, as the drab female blends in with the sand, while the black male is nearly undetectable in the night.
The ostrich has been hunted and utilised by man since the earliest times. The presence of eggshells in Stone Age human shelters suggests ostriches were an important part of human life as early as 60,000 BCE. Hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari still use ostrich eggshells as water containers, punching a hole in them. They have been hunted and farmed for their feathers, which at various times have been popular for ornamentation (such as hats during the 19th century). Their skins are valued for their leather. In the 18th century they were almost hunted to extinction; farming for feathers began in the 19th century. At the start of the 20th century there were over 700,000 birds in captivity. The market for feathers collapsed after WW I, but commercial farming for skins and meat became widespread during the 1970s. Ostriches are so adaptable that they can nowadays be found on farms in places as far-flung as Alaska.
Ostrich meat (colloquially known as “bird beef” in parts of South Africa) tastes similar to lean beef and is low in fat and cholesterol, as well as high in calcium, protein and iron. Uncooked, it is dark red or cherry red. Ostrich does not have fat marbling in the meat like beef. They do develop fat, but it collects outside the muscles and is easily removed during processing. Therefore, the cuts of meat are very lean with very low fat content. Almost all of the meat from an Ostrich comes from the leg, thigh, and back. An Ostrich has no breast meat like the chicken and turkey.
Because ostrich meat has a very low fat content, it is best to cook over a high heat to seal the meat, then reduce heat and cook as a beef steak according to the cut. The fillet is wonderful just cooked on its own to appreciate the full natural flavour. The great thing about fillet is that it can be cooked to your taste, and can even be eaten raw (as Carpaccio) so a little pink in the middle is ideal and will maximise your enjoyment of this product. Overcooking to well done will ruin the steak and simply convert it to leather. Ostrich Steaks are excellent with your favourite marinade, with cranberry jelly or redcurrant sauce being particularly good. Ostrich biltong is a real treat as well, particularly if you like biltong with a full, meaty flavour.
If you like hearty breakfasts, ostrich eggs will knock your socks off. Given that one Jurassic Egg contains the equivalent of two dozen chicken eggs, you can invite your whole family, in-laws and neighbours for breakfast the day you make an ostrich omelette. Ostrich eggs taste like chicken eggs, but richer, more buttery. It has a more viscous, slightly slippery texture when raw that remains after cooking.
Tortoises and puff adders. One of my fondest memories of my late mother-in-law is of us making skilpadjies (literally “baby tortoises”) while on holiday on the Namaqualand coast north-west of Garies in the late 1980s. We did it the local (and, to me, authentic) way – wrapping matchbox-sized morsels of lamb’s liver and kidneys seasoned with salt and pepper in netvet (caul fat). The little parcel would then be secured with a toothpick and grilled over an open driftwood fire until the fat was crisp. I suspect the Afrikaans name was derived from the combination of tender meat and a crisp casing, but there is no consensus about the origin of the name.
Nowadays, most cooks mince the liver and add coriander, chopped onion, salt and Worcestershire Sauce. They then form egg-sized balls of this mixture, wrap it in the netvet and secure it. Call me biased, but to me the latter-day version compares to the Real McCoy like Justin Bieber to Bob Dylan! Regardless of which recipe is used, the end result is obviously a very rich, fatty one and high in cholesterol.. We normally have it in tandem with a bland starch like mealie pap, so as to mitigate the richness of the skilpadjies.
A close relative of the skilpadjie is the pofadder (puff adder), named after a sluggish, slightly plump snake. It is a traditional sausage usually made in areas where game abounds, and vaguely resembles the snake that it is named after. Because the internal organs of game spoil first, they are traditionally cooked and eaten first. One of the tastiest ways of serving organ meat is in the form of a pofadder – stuffing chunks of liver, heart and kidneys into the large intestine, along with seasoning and sheep fat. As the wors is grilled over the coals, it expands and looks more and more like an angry puff adder. The best meats for this purpose are the springbok and gemsbok, as their livers and kidneys are especially sweet tasting. In Namaqualand and the Karoo the intestine, liver, heart and kidneys of a sheep is often used instead of venison.
Despite the indigenous ingredients, pofadder wors stems from an ancient European tradition of making sausages from offal. It is a cousin of England’s Black Pudding, Scotland’s Haggis, French Andouilles and Spanish Morcillo. The historian Apicus described sausages stuffed with seasoned tripe as early as the reign of Caesar Augustus. This culinary tradition reached the Cape via the Dutch settlers, soon followed by the French Huguenots of 1688. The Dutch imposed severe meat rationing in order to have sufficient stocks available for the replenishment of passing ships, and this necessitated extensive use of less popular cuts, including all innards. Two types of sausage from this era may well have provided the inspiration for the pofadder: Dutch rolpens (the stomach of a sheep stuffed with fatty meat and rice) and the French Andouille (the large intestine stuffed with pork and pork fat). Both sausages were first boiled and then basted with sheep fat and fried.
Today mutton-based ersatz pofadder encased in pork intestines abound in butcheries all over the country, but I have yet to taste one that comes close to the real thing. For that you have to head west, where towns like Calvinia pride themselves on the authenticity of their meat dishes.
“Why don’t sharks eat lawyers? Professional courtesy!” – A. Whitney Brown.