Potjiekos (poy-kee-kawse) is friendly, leisurely food slowly simmered in a cast-iron pot for maximum flavour. Typically South African, it is thought to have originated from Europe at the time of the Eighty Year War (1566-1648) when a shortage of food during the siege of Leiden forced people to cook almost everything they could lay their hands on in a huge communal pot or cauldron. This dish became known as “hutspot” or “hodgepodge” and was an excellent way of tenderizing tough meat and gristle, making it more palatable.
The potjie made its way to Africa along with Dutch settlers, who then took it with them on the “Groot Trek”. From there early explorers used these cooking vessels exclusively on their expeditions into the interior and each family had at least two potjies, a round one for meat, and a flat one for bread. It was during this period that the tribal Africans realised the practical uses of the pots and traded animal hides and other commodities for them, replacing their clay pots that were used for cooking.
Among the African tribal cultures these pots became known as “phutu” pots. The black cast-iron potjie has survived the test of time and is used extensively in Africa by almost all cultures. With the advent of electricity, the potjie was all but forgotten in South Africa, but some 30 years ago it enjoyed a huge revival, and today is as valued a cooking utensil as the pressure cooker and microwave oven.
Potjiekos is fun food to cook and eat and needs only one’s imagination when it comes to selecting the ingredients. Once you have the right pot and have made a fire, brown the meat and onions, add a little stock and seasonings, and simmer slowly until tender. Add remaining vegetables and continue to simmer until done.
The best meat cuts to use are the sinewy, economical cuts which become tender and gelatinous when simmered for a long time and develop a strong meaty flavour. The following cuts are suitable for potjiekos.
- Neck, shin, brisket, flat rib, short rib, thin flank, bolo, chuck, topside, silverside, thick flank and oxtail.
- Lamb and mutton
- Neck, shank, flank, breast, thick rib, offal such as trotters and tripe, and the cleaned head.
- Shank, trotters, head, thick rib and belly.
Other meat such as venison and game birds make ideal potjiekos. Chicken and fish can also be used, but will require less cooking time.
Cast iron cookware, including the potjie, is favoured over modern pans because of its natural nonstick qualities and ability to withstand high temperatures without warping. Potjie pots are available from size ¼ (0.7 litres) to size 30 (95 litres). A size, or number, 3 pot will serve four to six people. You can buy a smaller pot for your rice, pap or side vegetables, and a flat-bottomed one for your breads. When buying your potjie inspect it for any cracks and ensure the lid seals properly. Pots are generally available from hardware stores and big supermarkets in the cities, and general dealers and co-ops out of town.
Most potjies are bought ready cured these days. A cured or seasoned potjie is reasonably smooth on both the outside and inside and you need only give it a good scrub before you use it. An un-cured pot is usually dark grey and quite rough on the inside. These have to be cured to remove the possibility of an iron taste or black deposits in your food. There are various theories on “seasoning” your pot before use. Below are the most common ways.
Scour the inside of the pot thoroughly using sandpaper. Wash with warm soapy water, rinse, dry, and then grease both the inside and outside with pork fat. Fill the pot to the brim with un-wanted pork, e.g. trotters, but be sure it contains fat, and leftover vegetables such as potatoes, and/or vegetable peels. Fill to the brim with water, place the lid on tightly and cook over a low fire (or gas burner) for three to four hours, or longer, topping up with water so it is always full. Once cooled, discard the food, wash with dishwashing liquid and water and rinse well. Then rub the inside, which will be smooth, and the lid with cooking oil and store.
Simple seasoning involves applying a coating of cooking oil and salt to the surface of the cast iron pot and heating it in a hot oven for several minutes. After cooling, the oil and salt should be wiped out with a clean paper towel or kitchen cloth. This seasoning process forms a natural nonstick coating and fills in any crevices formed during the casting process.
Fill the pot with water and about 100 ml of salt. Bring the water to the boil, and then simmer for about three hours (over a gas burner if you have one as it’s easier to control the heat). Discard the water and rinse and dry the pot. Rub the pot generously with oil and salt. Then heat the pot once again until very hot. Allow the pot to cool and rinse well. To store the pot, rub the inside with oil and stuff a newspaper or paper towelling in it to absorb moisture and prevent rust, and keep it in a dry place.
Some people like to make a wood fire in a new pot and burn it for a couple of hours.
A potjie is a traditionally layered dish, consisting of game, lamb, beef such as oxtail, chuck, offal, pork and pork ribs, fish and shellfish, poultry, including ostrich, game birds, and vegetables. The cheaper, tougher cuts of meat are perfect as the slow cooking will render them tender and delicious, with lots of flavour.
The fire is key to cooking a potjie and the heat has to be just right to simmer the contents slowly over a number of hours. The best way to achieve this is to have two charcoal fires (charcoal is easier to control than wood), one under the pot consisting of glowing coals, and another to the side that is regularly fed with new charcoal. This ensures a constant temperature and prevents the potjie cooking too fast or from burning. Have enough charcoal on hand for up to four hours, depending on whether you’re making a beef potjie that takes longer to cook than, for instance, a vegetable potjie. You can also buy an inexpensive, simple “coalmaker” at your local hardware shop. Your fire should be a “cool” fire, that is made with just enough coals to keep the potjie bubbling softly at a steady pace.
Potjiekos takes a long time to cook, so start well in advance. Sitting around the fire socialising with friends is part of why potjiekos was revived in the first place, so make sure you have enough nibbles to keep guests happy until mealtime.
The round shape of the potjie allows even distribution of the heat, trapping the steam and resulting in even cooking. The sauce collects at the bottom of the pot, preventing burning. Potjiekos is regarded as healthy, with all the valuable nutrients locked in.
Start by placing your pot over the coals, making sure it stands secure and level. Heat your oil or lard and then add meat cut into portions and brown thoroughly on both sides. Browning is essential since this not only seals in the flavour, but improves the appearance of the meat. Now slice a couple of onions and add to the meat. If preferred one or more (according to taste) cloves of garlic can be crushed or chopped and added to the pot. Sauté onions until transparent.
Add your vegetables, starting with vegetables that take longer to cook, for example carrots and potatoes at the bottom followed by sweet potatoes, pumpkin and then mushrooms, depending on what you are using. You can also use leeks, celery, baby marrows, beans (green or tinned beans such as haricot, lima, red kidney, etc), cabbage, broccoli, turnips, green pepper, aubergine, cauliflower, and so on. Dry or fresh herbs and spices of your choice can be sprinkled over each layer.
A warm liquid sauce or marinade comes next. Every potjie cook has their own recipe, and it may consist of red or white wine, beer, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, olive oil, chillies, tomato paste, stock and/or soup powder. If you add a lot of vegetables, you won’t need that much liquid, and some potjie chefs don’t add any at all as the vegetables release enough liquid and with the pot closed all the time, the steam cannot escape.
Put the lid on, sprinkle some coals around the rim if you prefer, and listen until your potjie starts making a “gurgling” sound, which means it’s cooking. Now is the time to pour yourself a glass of wine and relax while the potjie makes the magic.
Never open your potjie’s lid and only stir the potjie just before it’s done, to blend the flavours.
Many cooks like to add dumplings to the pot. Scoop them over the stew about half an hour before the potjie is ready and don’t open until they’re done.
Potjie can be served over traditional accompaniments such as flavoured or plain, pap, rice or even noodles.
A couple of mixed salads, potato salads or another South African favourite, Three-bean salad.
With umngqusho or bean and samp salad.
Tips & Tricks
If the weather is bad you could use a gas fire, as the flame is more easily regulated, however this is hugely frowned upon amongst potjiekos lovers.
Side dishes should be plain and simple, so that the potjie is the main flavour of the day.
Potbrood is best made in a flat, bottomed potjie, otherwise you won’t be able to get it out once done.
The pores in the cast iron capture flavours of past potjiekos, which gradually get released into the potjie as the metal heats up. Most potjiekos taste better the next day after having rested overnight in the pot.
Vegetarians can make a delicious potjie layering as many of their favourite vegetables as they like. Just before the end of cooking time, add cubed Feta cheese and cover until melted. Serve with crusty bread and Balsamic vinegar.
Only add heated liquid to your potjie; cold liquid will interrupt the cooking. If this isn’t possible, allow the liquid to slowly run down the side of the potjie into the food.
Potjie should cook really slowly. If you can clearly hear the bubbling inside the pot, it’s cooking too fast. Remove some of the coals that are directly under the potjie.
When dishing up, do it in layers, the same way the potjie is made.
Some like to add rice to the potjie; do this by arranging the vegetables in layers around the sides forming a hollow in the middle. Towards the end of the cooking, you can add your rice to the centre.
The pot builds up its own steam, so take care not to add too much liquid as this can result in a watery potjie. The liquid should not be visible, and only once the potjie is done will the liquid bubble to the top. If the pot is too watery, take the lid off for a few minutes and allow it to boil rapidly.
A standard size potjie will feed up to six people, so if you have more guests, you’ll have to beg, borrow or hire another potjie, or a really big one.
After use, clean the potjie with warm water and dishwashing liquid and coat the inside with vegetable oil or fat; it will get better the more you use it.
Category: South African Cuisine
Sub Category: Traditional