In South Africa, ask for biltong

Reporting from Cape Town, South Africa—
I was warned that meals during my March trip to South Africa would revolve around red meat. But I didn't know it would appear in a shriveled state similar to jerky.

Biltong, as it's called — from the Dutch words bil, or buttocks, and tong, or strip — is as ubiquitous in South Africa as men in World Cup jerseys. Gas station convenience stores sell it, of course. But so does the picnic deli at the Spier winery estate in Stellenbosch. There are biltong boutiques in Cape Town's Victoria & Alfred Waterfront mall. I even ate it paired with a Sauvignon Blanc at Makweti, a luxury safari lodge in the Waterberg Mountains.

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Just don't refer to it as jerky in the presence of a South African. "You could break a tooth on jerky. It's like plastic," says Christiaan Hattingh, who sells 100 pounds of biltong each week at the Meating Place in Boca Raton, Fla., far from his homeland. Jerky, he explains, is processed and machine-dried, but biltong is a higher grade of meat, sliced thicker and dried naturally in the open air.

South Africans have taken their biltong seriously for hundreds of years, since the Voortrekkers, or pioneers, migrated from the cape regions.

"It's part of our culture," says Vincent Myburgh, owner of Bozveld Butchery in Hoedspruit, near Kruger National Park. "When I was growing up, my grandmother would tell stories of how they hung meat from their ox wagons for biltong."

According to African folklore, migrating tribesmen herding their livestock would drape long strips of impala or kudu under their saddles so the chafing would tenderize the meat and the horse's sweat would flavor it. "South Africans joke that this is the reason for vegetarians," Hattingh says with a chuckle.

The seasoning has evolved with the use of coriander, vinegar, salt and sugar, as my husband, Jeff, and I were glad to discover during a stop at one of the countless biltong roadside stands — this one on the R33 in Modimolle, in Limpopo province. The shop manager asked us to select our favorite from dozens of 4-inch-wide, 2-foot-long bands of beef dangling from a wooden rack in the otherwise stark space. She then chopped it up into chewy, bite-size pieces and sold them to us in a brown paper bag: 38 rand, or about $5, for half a pound.

Her biltong was too gristle-heavy for our taste, but the meat itself more closely resembled tasty steak than the dreaded jerky. "Some people would rather gnaw on fatty biltong than leaner biltong, especially while watching soccer or rugby," says Hattingh. "It's just personal preference."

That applies to seasoning as well: "Everyone has a recipe, and everyone thinks theirs is the best. I add Worcestershire sauce, and brown sugar keeps it moist," says Steve Edwards, chef-proprietor at Beluga restaurant in Cape Town.

He earns extra creativity points by using cloves, bay leaf, mustard seeds and toasted paprika. "Biltong isn't usually associated with fine cuisine," Edwards says. "But it adds a lovely meaty flavor to sauces, soups and salads." The motivation behind the double-baked biltong and three-cheese souffle with chive cream sauce on his menu is personal: "Some of my own fondest memories include biltong, biscuits and Brie. So biltong souffle was an extension of my own food memory bank."

Gordon Ramsay's Maze restaurant at the One & Only resort in Cape Town also serves biltong — as a consomme and in a salad. There's even biltong-infused vodka in the Bloody Mary on his cocktail menu.

Many South African tourists want to share their prized find with friends at home. But the U.S. government is pretty clear when it says, "You may not import fresh, dried or canned meats." How to feed your addiction if Customs confiscates your beloved biltong? Myburgh says whipping up a batch is "simple." Pick up some silverside (Americans call it London broil, but it must be cut against the grain) and let the raw meat sit overnight in the spices. Then scrape off the excess and hang it for two to three days from hooks, in an enclosed space with fans to keep the air circulating.

Too intimidated (or lazy)? Look locally — you might be surprised. "Biltong is everywhere because South Africans are everywhere, and, to us, it's a staple," Hattingh says. In the L.A. area, head to African Hut in Laguna Niguel or European Deluxe Sausage Kitchen in Beverly Hills. Just don't ask for jerky.

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