The South African braai (pronounced br-eye) has become one of the country’s greatest outdoor eating pleasures, enjoyed by all the cultures in South Africa.
The word braai, an abbreviation of the word braaivleis, is the Afrikaans word for barbecue. It has been adopted by English-speaking as well as other language groups in South Africa. Like the word “barbecue”, the word “braai” is a noun and a verb. As a noun, it refers to the grill itself and as a verb you would “braai some steak” or hold a “braai”.
South Africans won’t easily let anything get in the way of a good braai, not even the weather. Come rain or sunshine ( fortunately it’s mostly sunshine), they just love it. For them a braai is much more than just a way of cooking, it has become a way of life.
It’s rare to see a braai with just a few people attending. When there is a braai, it’s a social happening and South Africans, hospitable by nature as they are, are keen to invite anybody and everybody to make it a real occasion. These days with the high cost of meat, it’s normal to have a bring ’n braai.
It’s difficult to determine how and when the South African barbecue or braai culture originated. There wasn’t much choice for the Khoi people, the Bantu people and later the Voortrekkers with their nomadic lifestyles but to cook and grill over open fires.
With time the smoky aroma of sizzling meat cooked over an open fire in South Africa’s lovely sunshine weather, has become one of the country’s greatest outdoor eating pleasures, enjoyed by all the cultures in South Africa.
In the past braaivleis (barbecued meat) meant just that, grilled meat served with “mealiepap”.
Side dishes include “mealiepap”, a variety of fresh salads, potbrood, herbed bread, grilled mushrooms and vegetable stir-fries.
Make sure that the meat for the braai is of good quality. Steaks should be well ripened to ensure tenderness and improved flavour. To prevent curling during cooking, you should remove the outer edges of fat from chops. Lamb has always been the most popular meat for a braai because it’s tender and succulent.
Pork has grown in popularity and is very tasty with a barbecue sauce. But the meat most favourite and ubiquitous at every South African braai is of course the country’s famous “boerewors”.
A legacy of the early German settlers, it’s a must at any braai. It’s quite fat and made of coarsely minced beef and pork, spiced with mainly coriander.
South Africans take their braai very seriously and it has become some kind of an art. The secret is not to be impatient, but to wait until a good bed of coals has formed with no tongues of flame that can singe and spoil the meat.
To achieve perfect coals, seasoned experts use their favourite wood such as camel thorn, vine stumps, rooikrans, myrtle, leadwood and umbrella thorn. Charcoal has the convenience of being widely available and generating good heat. However once glowing, they should not be disturbed.
South Africans regard themselves as seasoned experts when it comes to braaiing (barbecuing) and they all seem to have their own ways and methods of producing a nice braai. Below are a collection of tips and hints to help you enjoy your braai.
The correct utensils are essential. Turn the meat with a pair of tongs or an egg lifter to keep the meat juices sealed inside. Long-handled tongs are best to avoid singed fingers.
A cooking area of about 45 cm will be enough to cook food for eight people. Always make sure that the cooking area is large enough to comfortably move the meat around from high to low heat and vice versa.
Sprinkle salt over meat just before serving. If meat is seasoned before cooking, the salt draws out the juices, leaving the meat tough and dry.
When braaing lamb, use a few twigs of rosemary to apply the basting mixture during cooking.
Not all cuts of beef and lamb are suitable for braaing. Make sure you use tender, ripened cuts, or alternatively, marinate the meat to tenderise.
Cook meat in correct order, for example, steaks should be cooked last, since they toughen if they are not served immediately. Sausages can be kept warm successfully and should be cooked first. Also remember to undercook meat which is to be kept warm.
Boerewors and other sausages should be cooked over low heat. Steaks and chops should be cooked rapidly over high heat.
Most meats and steaks in particular, should begin cooking on the hottest part of the fire to seal the surface and keep the juices inside and then be moved to a cooler area to finish cooking.
The thickness of the meat is what determines its cooking time. Small, thin cuts require a shorter cooking time.
Stack the coals in a pyramid shape pile to allow air to circulate. Put two or three fire lighters under the outer edges of the pile, the fire will then spread evenly from the outside to the centre and top of the pyramid. Just before cooking, use tongs to flatten slightly to distribute the heat evenly.
After lighting the coals, they should burn slowly until the flames have died down and they are glowing red and covered with a layer of grey ash. This can take at least 45 minutes to 1 hour.
If you can keep your hand 75 cm above the cooking grill for ten seconds, the fire is ready on medium heat. Above ten seconds the heat gets too low, below ten seconds the heat is high.
To vary the cooking heat, adjust the distance of the grid from the coals.
If you lose heat on a braai, add more coals around the outer edge and gradually move them into the centre of the fire as they catch alight.
Fire lighters must be allowed to burn out before adding food, or the food will taste of paraffin and will need to be discarded.
If the braai has lost too much heat, remove all the food, add a few more coals, evenly spread and allow them to burn for a minimum of 10 minutes before returning the food to the grill.
When selecting wood for the braai fire, camel thorn, umbrella thorn, rooikrans, mopani, myrtle and leadwood are usually preferred if available, because they burn cleanly, producing coals that will last long, while the smell of the wood adds to the ambiance.
Stack a few pieces of wood in a triangular fashion to allow air to circulate. Put fire lighters underneath to start the fire. Once the few pieces of wood are burning well, additional pieces can be added if necessary.
Don’t add too much wood in the initial stages, otherwise the air might not circulate sufficiently and the fire might die.
When the wood has finished burning, which will take considerably longer than with charcoal, spread out the coals to form a nice even bed.
When it comes to cooking on a braai, the simplest method and ingredients often create the best end result. There is nothing more disappointing than over– or underdone meat, so the key is to ensure a delicious outer layer with a juicy inside and depending on your choice either rare, medium or well-done.
The cooking times below are just a guideline, as it will depend on the thickness of the cut and personal preference.
Many experts prefer to use salt and pepper as the only seasoning when braaing meat. However, the creative cook might like to experiment with different marinades and basting sauces. Remember that the seasonings used in marinades and basting sauces should complement and not overwhelm the flavour of the meat.
Avoid using sweet ingredients such as honey, jams or brown sugar in a marinade or basting sauce, since these are inclined to become too dark and bitter during grilling. Brush basting sauces containing these ingredients over meat a few minutes before the end of cooking time. Also remember to grill marinated or basted meats slowly to prevent scorching.
All accompaniments to be served at a braai should be as simple as possible. A well chilled white wine or light-bodied red wine served with any of the following accompaniments complements the meat perfectly.
Grilled green mealies or sweetcorn. Parboil them and grill them over hot coals. Serve with salt and pepper and lashings of butter.
Potatoes, onions or sweet potatoes should be wrapped in foil, shiny side in, and cooked in the coals. These are delicious with pork.
Putu pap with savoury tomato sauce.
Onion and tomato sandwiches, toasted on the grid.
Savoury herb, cheese or garlic breads.
Salads such as a crisp green salad, mixed salad and coleslaw.
A good braai host will always inquire as to who likes their food well done, and leave separate portions to cook longer for those who prefer it so.
Over-cooked meat cannot be undone!