Last week, with a swarm of vuvuzelas still buzzing angrily in my ears, I decided to check out some other, less offensive, South African contributions to culture. There is, of course, music in the isicathamiya a cappella style, popularized by Ladysmith Black Mambazo with an assist by Paul Simon on his Graceland album. At some time, you must have heard the magical voice of Miriam Makeba, so the sounds of mbaqanga should not be unfamiliar either.
“Mbaqanga” is the Zulu word for cornmeal porridge, which makes a nice transition to South African food. Biltong has always fascinated me because of its close association with pemmican and jerky. I first ran across references to it around 15 years ago and tried making some. I even ordered a “biltong box” from a fellow in South Africa who is best described as a “biltong nerd.” He built the boxes with hangers for about 6 strips of meat and a short piece of toaster wire that kept it moderately warm inside to dry them. I had to change the plug on it and I quickly learned that it was a pain to keep clean (the biltong would drip) so I quit using it. The main purpose of the box, the gentleman proclaimed on his web page, was “to keep the flies off it.” This seems to be a common meme amongst biltong aficionados because it is included in practically every recipe (if you Google “biltong” with “flies” you will get 38,100 hits!). The other common meme, since biltong is now mostly made indoors to help keep the flies off it, is the use of an “oscillating fan” for circulation. I have to confess that I’m old-fashioned, my fan does not oscillate, but I do use a cheapie fan from the dollar store to dry sausages, such as chorizo and andouille, that I hang from a shower curtain rod in a rarely-used second bathroom. But the really cool thing about biltong is that it really does not require any other special equipment.
Some historical notes: “Bil” is the Dutch word for “rump” and “tong,” you might guess, is tongue. Some twisted people, such as myself, immediately think of a butt-kisser, but the butt here is actually from the animal – the round section – and the tongue refers to the way it is cut. Nowadays, London broil is the cut normally used, but historically any game animal might be used: zebra, eland, kudu, springbok, even ostrich. Since there was no refrigeration at the time, Dutch settlers used drying to preserve meats. I don’t want to get into the “problems” between the Dutch and British that culminated in the Boer Wars, though it is intriguing stuff - greed about gold, diamonds, and strangely enough dynamite patents, oh, and the Brit invention of concentration camps – but the Dutch never really liked the Brits and kept moving inland away from Cape Colony and finding greater riches everywhere they went, causing the Brits to go chasing after them and annexing wherever they settled. On these Dutch migrations, biltong played a major role in that it gave them the protein necessary for the long journeys.
Over the years, the recipes for biltong certainly changed as other cultures moved in the non-melting pot of South Africa. Indians were brought in to work as indentured workers on the sugar plantations and they brought their spices with them. So it is not uncommon to find garam masala or hot peppers in a biltong recipe. Other workers, oh what the heck, let’s just call them “slaves” from Malaysia and Java brought along nutmeg and allspice. The recipes, in other words, blended far more easily than the people who carried the ingredients to South Africa.
For my latest biltong creation, I went back to the basic ingredients: Vinegar, salt, pepper, coriander, baking soda, and brown sugar. I also used a teaspoon of curing salt for 5 pounds London broil as a hedge against botulism. However, this may not be necessary since a vinegar marinade lowers the pH sufficiently to kill off undesirable microorganisms. Once the meat is dry – that takes only 3-4 days if you have a good oscillating fan – it is preserved and safe.
The meat is sliced along, or slightly catty-cornered, to the grain. How thick? I saw variations in recipes going from 1 centimeter (about 3/8”) to 1 whole inch. That probably sounds very thick, but very thin slices are cut across the grain when it comes time to eat it. In fact, a typical serving would be done over a pint at the pub, you take out your biltong and your pocket knife and shave off a piece for yourself and one for your mate on the next stool. Then he’ll return the favor with his own biltong. The thinner the better and there are all kinds of contraptions out there for performing this task. Anyway, I cut the meat into approximately 3/4” strips.
Here is the coating I used for 5 pounds:
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- ¼ cup coriander, roasted and coarsely ground
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon InstaCure #1
- ½ cup red wine vinegar
Mix all the dry ingredients together and dredge into the strips of beef. Layer the strips into a casserole type dish and pour the vinegar over the meat. This is the really fun step! Because, when the vinegar hits the baking soda, it’s gonna foam up! I guess this is done to reduce the acidity slightly, or maybe it’s voodoo “to keep the flies off,” but I’ve never seen this in any other recipe. After that, it goes into the fridge for 12 hours. Turn the strips after about 6 hours.
Then you mix about a half cup of vinegar with a quart of warm water and dunk the strips in it. This step is supposed to make the biltong “shiny and dark.” Poke a hole in each piece and run a piece of string through it so it can be hung up to dry. Don’t forget to aim an oscillating fan at the strips! In about 4 days, you will have some incredible biltong.