Like most of my family but we haven’t made it for ages, probably because it takes a good while to make & time has been in short supply lately; it’s really silly that, in these fiscally challenging times, we don’t consider the option more often; we’re quick to grab steaks & the chops that cost the earth and then we spend most of the evening complaining about the cost of living & the government instead of taking the cheaper option and spend the evening laughing at our local cartoonists’ views on politics in general.
In our family my eldest brother is the undisputed potjie king & we don’t challenge him; naturally we all think our own potjies need to take top prize and since this is my website, mine will be featured here. I’ve tested a good few recipes in my life and have come to the conclusion that whilst I think my flavour wasn’t too bad, it wasn’t near the calibre of my brother’s potjie so I made up mind never to challenge him but to concentrate on what I do best. To get to the bottom of the potjie, I went back in time and found myself in 333 BC Persia when Alexander the Great was on the acquisition trail – the first recipes for something similar to potjiekos actually originated here. It seems the Arabs were particularly partial to cooking stew like affairs but there weren’t too many chefs who recorded recipes so information is sketchy at best. Apicius documented his recipes but he cooked for the rich and that excluded stews.
Anyway potjiekos differs from stew in quite a few ways:
- Nothing is braised – sometimes the meat is browned but after that, the ingredients are packed in layers and the lid is closed, not to be opened until the food is ready.
- The sauce isn’t thick & consists of the liquid from the vegetables & a glass or so of water or wine.
- The food is steamed unless you add liquid (my brother adds nothing).
- No ingredients are ever stirred or touched during the cooking process.
- The pot is cooked over very low heat for a long period of time.
The old people tell me that potjiekos began as a hutspot and it originated in Holland during the The Eighty Years War (1566-1648) round about the time when the Spaniards surrounded Leiden. Towards the end of the war the Dutch in Leiden were starving so they took whatever they could find, popped it into one large pot and cooked it – they had to survive so niceties were out of the question. At that time it had almost no flavour but as life improved, spices were added. After the Dutch had been living at the Cape for a while, food became more abundant and the hutspot rarely found it’s way onto the menu but the voortrekkers, the hunters and the trekboere made good use of it – a three legged pot could hang on a hook, required minimal wood and little to no attention. On the ox-wagons they hung on one of two places on the wagon:
- Just before the rear axel, on the other side of the “langwa” on a hook,
- At the back of the wagon, just in front of the brakes, between the wheels there was a grill; on top of the grill there was a chicken coop where the pot was often put, upside down with the lid pushed in next to it.
The minute the trek farmers spanned out, the pot came out, a fire was made and dinner was soon on the go; since they were always on the lookout for grazing for their cattle, they only carried a pot & the basics in the wagon (flour, rice & sometimes a little salted or dried meat) but no vegetables (they picked ‘veldkos’if they could find it) and if circumstances permitted it, they’d shoot for the pot. At dinner time, they’d make a fire, pop everything into the pot, close the lid firmly and push a small slowly burning log underneath the pot’s belly. On the odd occasion, they’d make some bread dough, put the prepared dough on top of the ingredients before they closed the lid and as the potjie cooked, so the steam would cook their bread.
TRADITIONAL WATERBLOMMETJIE POTJIE
Waterblommetjies are a traditional veldkos and can be picked from about September through to November – I’ve even seen some plants growing on a nearby dam in early December, though it was a long time ago.
- 1 ½ - 2 kg waterblommetjies - if you look at old recipes, this amount equates to 1 basket
- 1 ½ lamb or mutton tails (you can use rib or neck)
- 8 large potatoes, peeled and halved
- 4 large onions
- 2 fat cloves garlic
- 1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 good sized twig rosemary
- 2 cloves
- 2 allspice
- 1 lemon, finely grated zest
- 2 lemons, juice only
- 2 tsp sugar
- 400 ml water or homemade lamb or mutton stock
- 4 tbsp butter
- Extra virgin olive oil to taste
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Break the stalks off the ‘waterblommetjies’ & remove any hard leaves; rinse properly under a tap, then boil water in a pot & put all the waterblommetjies in to cook for only 10 minutes before removing and rinsing under cold water; they are now ready for the potjie.
- Heat the oil & butter in the potjie and brown the meat on all sides before removing it and setting it aside.
- Now fry the onions and the garlic until translucent and soft but not brown and pack the already browned meat on top of this, followed by the potatoes and then season with salt and pepper to taste, add the rosemary, the zest and the spices, pour over the lemon juice and the water (or stock) over that.
- Do not stir under any circumstances; the potjie will take quite a bit of time so be patient, sit back, relax and have a glass of wine or two.
They shot for the pot & usually added some mutton or hippo fat to the meal.
During the Anglo Boer war the pot was popular but, for logical reasons, it couldn’t travel with the men & young boys who fought this war on horse-back; because men must eat, they simply used bully beef tins for cooking purposes & whatever they were given by the women living in the surrounding farms and who supported them during the war. After the war, potjiekos became a Saturday late afternoon tradition for two reasons: men need the fire experience like they need blood and, strange as it may seem, housewives need a break; in the Afrikaans home Sunday is not a day of rest for the mother: it is a very important day with entire families gathering for massive Sunday lunches where tables groan under the weight of the food (I remember when we were very small, 2 roasts were quite normal & in my ouma’s home & 3 or even 4 weren’t an oddity). Sundays were days when new recipes were tested, children were fussed over more than usual and the new babies were christened & admired while men congregated near the wine, uncomfortable in the suits they were forced to wear but firm in their resolve to test all the wine. Nowadays, when a potjie is being made, everybody sits near the fire to share in the experience; usually all the men offer advice or poke at the secondary fire with long sticks but nobody interferes with the potjie or the important fire because that is, exclusively, the domain of the host-man. Women are relegated to the menial tasks: they ensure that everything has been bought, peeled, cut up into the required sizes, washed & chopped and that all the spices are neatly set out next to the potjie. The owner of the potjie takes his task very seriously & jealously guards it with his stick in one hand and his glass in the other; only HE prods the main fire while all other men offer advice but, respectfully, stick to prodding only the secondary fire while all discuss the complexities of the matter at hand. Bear in mind that the secondary fire also has another important characteristic: it’s size will depend on the number of men present – anything upwards of 10 men and you have bonfire. Finally, the lid of a potjie is never lifted unless the thing is burning.
ABSOLUTELY NON TRADITIONAL THAI STYLE CHICKEN POTJIE
- 1 kg chicken thighs (you can use breasts but then you need to use the whole one with skin and bones)
- 420 g tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- 100 g green beans, topped & tailed
- 500 ml carrots, peeled and sliced lengthways into thickish julienne type strips
- 12 baby potatoes, washed & skins left on
- 6 spring onions, finely chopped
- 500 g whole button mushrooms
- 100 g small zucchini, topped & tailed and washed
- 2 sticks lemongrass, bashed lightly but left whole
- 2 whole garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 blades mace
- 6 green cardamom pods, based & seeds removed
- 1 tsp coriander seeds, toasted & pounded into a powder
- 2 tbsp fresh coriander leaves, chopped
- 1 flat tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and grated
- 2 red chillies, finely chopped
- 1 x tin coconut cream
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 75 ml sweet chilli sauce
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- Extra virgin olive as needed
- Heat the oil in the potjie, salt the chicken and fry the pieces, a few at a time, until they’re golden brown in colour.
- Add the herbs & spices (only 1 tbsp coriander leaves) and stir in the coconut cream, the chilli sauce, the lemon juice and the chopped tomatoes & salt to taste.
- Arrange in the vegetables in layers on top of the chicken as follows: first the carrots, the potatoes, the beans, the zucchini and lastly the mushrooms.
- Put on the lid firmly and allow to simmer on the coals for about an hour to 1 ½ hours.
- If the potjie becomes too dry (in other words if you don’t hear the bubbling any more) give it a glass of wine.
- Traditionally the liquid is filled until about 2-3cm under the top layer of vegetables and left for a couple of hours until ready but my brother adds only a tiny amount and uses liquid-rich vegetables instead.
- If you’re worried about the meat burning, lift the pot very slightly and add a glass of liquid or wine to the pot; a very watery potjie is no fun; serve with rice.
- Before you serve, sprinkle over the chopped spring onions and the other tbsp chopped coriander.
The typical pot is three-legged cast iron pot that comes in a variety of sizes. There are a few things to bear in mind:
- Make sure the lid fits properly and the handle cannot unhook from the side – it would be a disaster if you’re carrying your food to the table and the whole lot falls out.
- Get a big enough pot – you’ll rarely cook for yourself so make sure everything fits – rather too big than too small.
- After you buy it, break it in but cooking it to remove any iron taste and to get rid of the black deposit that you invariably find from an unprepared pot.
- Scour the inside of the pot with sandpaper, then wash and grease the inside and the outside with fat (not oil) before cooking the pot by filling it with leftover vegetables or just the peels over a slow fire for a few hours – repeat the process a few times; you wont’ be sorry.
- Each time you finish using it, coat the inside of the pot with a thin layer of fat to prevent rusting – you could also use oil but I’ve found that fat works better – before you use the thing, remember to wash it with warm soapy water & rinsing it out properly to get rid of the fat – it is a bit of an affair but it’s worth it when you bear in mind that you won’t be doing much else.
- It doesn’t matter what type of wood or charcoal you use as long as it can generate coals because you’ll be moving coals around to regulate the heat underneath the pot.
- It’s important that you time the coal/wood ratio because you’ll need the wood or charcoal to be turned into coals before you can put them underneath your pot (you only need a few at a time); this is why a potjie takes so long – it takes hours and my dad used to calculate the time in terms of glasses of wine per person.
- It’s a good idea to keep a separate fire on one side to provide you with coals – the average male’s idea of heaven.
- The food is packed in layers – first the meat is browned in a little oil to seal the flavour and improve the appearance and the rest is added with the vegetables packed in order of cooking time – those that only require a little cooking time, will go right at the top.
- If you’re worried about the meat burning, lift the pot very slightly and add a glass of liquid or wine to the pot; an overly drenched potjie is not enjoyable.