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The Potjie, a Beloved Southern African Tradition

Avatar of inke inke 28. April 2017 - Discover Namibia, Culture

You can tell that these potjies (three-legged cast-iron pots) are used regularly.

Rivalling the legendary braai (barbeque) as the most popular outdoor southern African cooking tradition, the “potjie” like the braai, provides an opportunity for an enjoyable social and culinary event as families and friends gather around the fire. The slow-cooking cast-iron three-legged pot simmering on the fire encourages chatter, tall stories and camaraderie, although the cook may prefer to keep his “potjiekos” (pot food) recipe a closely guarded secret. The potjie has an interesting history going back to the first Dutch settlers and has over the centuries become an integral part of southern African culture.

The potjie, translated from the Afrikaans as “small pot”, originates from the Dutch oven. It was brought to the southern tip of Africa with the Dutch in 1652 when van Riebeeck established the Cape of Good Hope as a provisioning station for ships on their way to the East. Later as the colony grew and the Voortrekkers (pioneers) made their way into the interior to seek new land, the pot with its handle and tight-fitting lid made an ideal and robust cooking vessel to be hooked onto the back of the wagon and to be unhooked later in the day for the evening meal. When the wagons stopped and camp was set up, the potjies were suspended over the fire to cook whatever game or fowl had been shot during the day and any vegetables that were on hand. The aroma of good potjiekos softly bubbling on the fire filled the evening air.

People of Bantu origin migrating from Central and East Africa reportedly learnt the use of the cast iron cooking pots from Arab traders and later Portuguese colonists, and it was through trade with early explorers and the Voortrekkers that the virtues of the potjie were noticed and appreciated. The potjies were traded for animal hides and produce and gradually replaced traditional clay cooking pots. They were used for general purpose cooking and were referred to in some areas as putu pots, ideal for cooking the staple mealiemeal (maizemeal) widely eaten throughout southern Africa. It is a common site in rural villages to see a women stirring pap with long wooden spoons as children eagerly await their meal. The potjie has over time become quintessentially African.

Over the centuries the tripod potjie surpassed other pots and established itself in southern Africa as a pot for all. Potjiekos evolved to include additional ingredients, spices and herbs and transformed from mere nourishment into a unique cuisine and favourite outdoor and camping dish. The secret of the potjie, like any good stew, is slow-cooking, and the layering of ingredients. Unlike a stew, however, it must not be stirred. The long cooking process over low heat turns sinewy meat soft and tender in the gentle embrace of the potjie. Beef, mutton, lamb, venison, chicken and even seafood potjies are widely enjoyed. Each “chef” has his choice recipes and preferred methods and seasoning, and every potjie is different, even if the same recipe has been used. It is said that if a hundred people make a potjie, there will be a hundred different dishes, and there is an ongoing debate about how a true potjie should taste.

Generally, after the meat has been seared in hot oil to seal in the flavour, the onions, garlic and spices are added and then the slow-cooking vegetables like potato and carrots, topped with the rest of the vegetables and a small quantity of liquid (water, stock, wine, sherry or beer) if necessary, all seasoned generously with selected herbs and spices. The rounded belly of the pot allows for the even distribution of heat, whereas the bottom of a flat pot would burn, and the cast iron retains heat. (Remember to use oven gloves!) 

Resist the temptation to stir, put the lid on and leave the pot to work its magic and to cook slowly over the coals. Make sure that it doesn’t dry out and give the pot a quick stir when the potjiekos is ready to be served. The dish is typically served with rice. People gather around and stomachs rumble as delicious smells emanate from the pot.

Full of flavour, potjiekos recipes are shared, passed on from generation to generation, written up in recipe books available in bookstores and some of course are kept close to the heart. An old potjie, glistening with fat and the flavour of hundreds of good meals is like an old friend, to be hauled out for a social gathering, filled with delectable ingredients, placed on coals and the potjiekos eaten under the blue African sky or twinkling stars, as has been done since time immemorial.

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