Noble-born Englishwoman Lady Florence Dixie, war correspondent for the Morning Post during the First Boer War in the 1880’s, was not wholly enthusiastic about the South Africa she found. It was a country at war with Cape Town and the British, a place where Zulu kings languished in prison, where Trekboers—farmers on the move—turned into a guerrilla fighting force, and where the fight for land and queen and diamonds wouldn’t be resolved until the far bloodier second war, in which the British would reveal innovations such as the world’s first concentration camps. It was all grim enough that she titled her memoir of those years In the Land of Misfortune.
Of course, the war and its atrocities and the eventual victory of the British crown made South Africa, for better and worse, what it is today. And the same can be said of the principal food of those wars, a delicacy that modern South Africans tend to regard with a sort of Stockholm Syndrome: they love it despite its nature, because they remember in their blood the days when they were captive to it. It is not the best thing that was ever done with the majestic animals of the veldt, but it is unmistakably South African. It is Biltong.
“At a distance of a few inches apart hung these long thin strips, presenting the appearance of so many serpents or skinned eels. They are left so suspended until the hot sun has dried them up to a hard, shriveled substance, when they are declared in an estable state, and, under the name of biltong, constitute the principal food of the Boers.” —from In the Land of Misfortune.
First, a setting of definitions. Biltong may look the part, but it is definitively not beef jerky. Nor is it the charqui or carne-de-sol of South America or nham in Southeast Asia. Besides all the metaphysical, spiritual and historic differences, the simplest way to describe the contrast is that biltong is marinated with vinegar before being coated in spices and air-dried, while beef jerky is salted or smoked. When properly cured, a pound of biltong offers as much protein as three pounds of meat, and can last untouched for 20 years.
Among South African meats—and there are many—biltong stands apart from droëwors, which is a sort of dried sausage, or boerewors, fresh beef or game sausages seasoned with coriander, clove and other spices.
Since biltong, like sausage, is more a style of preparation than any particular meat, nearly anything can, and has, been converted from living creature to biltong form. You’re more likely than not going to find beef biltong, but there is shark biltong, and chicken biltong, and commercially-grown ostrich biltong.
More classic meats include game meats like kudu and the iconic springbok, which is not just the namesake of the South African rugby team, but also an animal that was so hunted for biltong-conversion that a 1937 law outlawed the sale of springbok biltong in order to prevent the scourge of “biltong jackals” that drove in motor cars throughout the North West Cape, decimating springbok herds for profit.
In my days in South Africa, I ate smoky kudu biltong, thick tuna biltong crusted with black pepper (a revelation from the Neighbourgoods market that came off like a seared tuna entrée that had been perfectly dried in place) and much more pedestrian beef biltong.
Springbok and other game biltong is now more carefully regulated, and unlike abalone, for example, there hasn’t been some great destructive Asian appetite for it. So it remains quiet outside the South African diaspora, but so loved inside it that on my flight back to New York, as on every South African Airways flight, a special announcement was made to remind passengers that biltong is not allowed into the United States.
And yet, at JFK airport, as customs inspectors waved us all through the nothing-to-declare line, they were surely ignoring suitcase after suitcase lined with thick strips of cured contraband. The passengers of South African Airways smuggle biltong not just for love or heritage, but because it is still the food of travelers, as it was for the Boer soldiers in Lady Florence Dixie’s day:
“On this they thrive, and in time of war find especially adapted to their requirements. It is light and easy to carry; few wagons corresponding to the commissariat of our Army are wanted; it requires no cooking, so that fires, if undesirable, can be dispensed with, and on this the Boer can live contentedly and flourish, retaining his health and his strength in no way impaired.”
For a glimpse of nearly everything we ate in our 2013 sojourn to South Africa, check out our 42-dish slideshow