This delicious one-pot meal is so traditionally South African I don’t really know how to begin describing it. A potjie pot (pronounced poy-kee) is a 3-legged cast iron pot available in different sizes and comes with a fitted lid. It is normally placed over smouldering coals and the heat carefully monitored and controlled over a period of a few hours to allow the stew to quietly simmer. Cooking over gas is an alternative, and although it would horrify most hard-core traditionalists, when the weather is bad or the situation doesn’t allow for an open fire, it is a great alternative allowing for an equally pleasurable and entertaining gathering.
The secret to a good potjie is that it must never be rushed and although many newcomers to this way of eating don’t immediately see the sense of spending hours outside around a pot, once they’ve experienced the ambience and delectable flavours a few times, they realise the joy is not only in the eating, but in the preparation, the comeraderie or quiet contemplation which accompanies the potjie pot.
The history of potjiekos (small pot food) dates back to the Voortrekkers (Pioneers) who landed at the Cape of Good Hope in their hundreds and spent days, weeks, months journeying into South Africa’s hinterland by ox wagon, relying on whatever foraging or hunting could produce to fill the pot along the way. My brother-in-law is a master at making potjies and scorns a recipe, saying that there is no set way of making a potjie; it can include anything and everything, but it is to be treated gently, NEVER stirred and all ingredients are added in layers in the order in which they take the longest to cook.
This particular recipe is one of my favourites and these days, we are fortunate to be able to decide the meat, vegetables and other accompaniments without relying on what Mother Nature will bestow upon us in our struggle through a harsh but beautiful land. Another positive is that because it is cooked slowly over a few hours, cheaper cuts of meat are better, making it a very affordable meal option for large gatherings of people. A tip to anyone planning on making a potjie? Don’t wait until your guests have gathered before you begin, unless you plan on spending a long time together before the meal is to be consumed – many have learned that lesson the hard way. We normally get ours set up and simmering away well before guest arrival, allowing plenty of time to spare as hungry guests don’t make a good party!
The pot needs to be seasoned and prepared before cooking commences. This means giving it a good wipe out and oiling, including the sides and base. The pot is then placed over the hot coals while still empty, adding only a little more oil. Once the oil is sufficiently hot, the meat is added a few pieces at a time to allow even browning. Remove and set aside as they are ready. The meat will more often than not have rendered it’s own fat so it isn’t always necessary to add more oil, but you’ll need to decide. The onions are generally added at this stage and the meat is then returned to the pot. The lid is then placed firmly on the top and the meat left to cook for a while. Then the layering begins, with the veggies that will take the longest to cook like carrots, being placed closest to the meat. Raw rice or pasta can be added to potjies, but I have to admit I prefer mine served separately. Potjiekos is ALWAYS tastier the day after cooking as the flavours have had even longer to develop, but you don’t often have the luxury of leftovers.
Also, when planning your catering, generally allow between 200 – 300 g of meat per person, on the bone. Bones in the potjie, as with a stew, add more flavour and thicken the juices. They can be removed just before serving if you prefer, but some people enjoy sucking the juices and remnants off the bones – yes, sadly, one does forget their basic manners a little when partaking of a well prepared and beautifully flavoured potjie. If adding green beans or peas, add them a few minutes before serving as they will cook very quickly.
I took this recipe from a 1987 Huis Genoot Potjiekos recipe book, but as I’ve said, a recipe isn’t necessary.
butter or oil
2 kg mutton (shanks, neck, ribs)
2 medium onions, finely chopped
20 whole baby potatoes, peeled (or larger ones chopped into 2 cm cubes)
3 large carrots, peeled and chopped into 2 cm cubes
3 medium sweet potatoes (kumara)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
500 ml warm water
2 beef stock cubes
250 ml dry red wine
50 ml chutney
50 ml tomato sauce
50 ml Worcester sauce
30 ml cornflour
30 ml oxtail soup powder
25 ml soy sauce
15 ml brown gravy powder (e.g. Bisto)
10 ml garlic flakes (I prefer to use fresh garlic)
a pinch ground cloves (optional)
- Grease the pot well with butter or oil and heat until very hot. Brown the eat a few pieces at a time and set aside.
- Fry the onions in the meat fat and oil mixture until just tender. Return the meat to the pot and arrange evenly.
- Dissolve the stock cubes in the warm water and mix the remaining gravy ingredients with the water and wine. Pour the gravy over the potjie. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Arrange the potatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes in layers on top of the meat. Cover and simmer for approximately 2½ hours.
- Do not stir and try not to open the pot to take a look as you release steam and flavour). The liquid needs to stay in the pot and will be a beautiful gravy once finished. Definitely no stirring!
- Serve with rice (yellow rice and raisins if you’re feeling fancy) and freshly baked bread or muffins to soak up all the gravy.