By Dawn A. Denton
For millions of Southern Africans, biltong is a part of life. This story of this traditional snack comes from our history.
What is it?
The word is made up of two Dutch words: bil which means “rump” and tong for “strip” or “tongue”. It is a high protein meat treat, which is most commonly made with beef, but game is a good choice too. Everyone has their favourite blend of spices which are used to treat the raw meat. The meat strips are marinated and dried, which can take between 24 hours and 10 days. The drying time depends on the climatic conditions, the type of meat being used, and the way people like it. Some like their biltong dry and some like it a bit more moist and slightly pink. The drying process is of course easier in drier climates. But it is easy to make your own biltong in a specially made box to keep moisture out if you live in a wetter climate.
Human beings have been preserving food since ancient times. On ships, sailors have, for centuries, used drying techniques to keep their food edible using salt and brine. French and German settlers who arrived on the southern tip of Africa used vinegar in their curing process. The Dutch included pepper, coriander and cloves in their recipes.
Biltong as we know it today, has its roots in the Great Trek which started in 1836. The Dutch settlers, who refused to live under British rule in the Cape Colony, packed up their ox wagons and headed inland. This brave journey into an unknown and hostile territory, gave the Dutch travellers the name of Voortrekkers. The name means ‘those who travelled ahead’. On their journey of many years, they needed to preserve their food and especially their meat. And thus, the land of hardship gave birth to biltong.
Southern Africans start their personal journey with biltong when their mothers shove a stick of dried meat into their mouths when they start to teethe. It is such a relief to scratch a tough stick of biltong on itchy and inflamed gums. And the spices help to sooth the ache.
But in Southern Africa, biltong is not just eaten as a snack at the pub, at a braai (bbq) or watching the rugby on a Saturday afternoon. There are biltong flavoured crisps, fudge imbedded with biltong, it’s grated on any and all dishes, is in cheese spreads, on sandwiches, on omelettes, sprinkled on pizzas, dipped in Tabasco or in salads (try a biltong, rocket, feta and strawberry salad. It’s delicious!)
What do Southern Africans say about it?
For most Southern Africans, it’s just eaten as-is:
“Ours never gets into any dishes before it’s all eaten”
“I inhale a whole bag in one sitting” – Dawn
When a South African was asked what dish she puts her biltong in, she relied:
“Are you nuts? I’ll buy a kilo of sliced biltong in the morning, and half of it is gone by the time I get home. The other gone by dinner time!”
A Southern African without a love of biltong is rare – for the millions of others, it defines us in so many ways.
Dawn A Denton
You can hear Dawn reading an African tale about Thunder and Lightening