Potjie pots and recipes
Potjie pots, recipes & tradition
Cast iron cooking vessels developed in some form and under different names during the Iron Age. By the 1500s they became associated with witches, traditional healers and travelers, some were belly type cauldrons, others were flat-bottomed.
The pot & kettle quickly became the heart of the home over much of Europe. Wages were low, families were large & food was expensive. Cast iron pots were durable & sometimes passed from mother to daughter. Long lasting, easy to care for, they were also suitable for the long cooking times required to make cheap meat stews tender. Fitted lids meant they were perfect for making bread too.
Theories differ, but potjiekos as we know it might have it origins in the 1566 war between the Netherlands & Spain. During, the Siege of Leyden, people were starving & the town pooled whatever food they had into a communal pot to cook up & eat for survival. This meager fare is a far cry from the luxurious potjiekos we enjoy today!
The pots might not have changed much, but the contents thankfully have. People today cook potjies for leisure & sometimes for celebration. The cooking time is long, & the large pots are designed to feed a crowd, families today are usually a lot smaller than they were back then.
The potjie traveled to Africa from Holland when Jan Van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. The Dutch used it themselves as an oven for cooking over open fires. It was the days of the spice trade, & as wealth grew, families developed their own often closely guarded secret recipes & secret ingredients were passed down through generations in whispers.
At the same time, African tribes were exposed to these iron cooking pots & traded hides & other items for them. There is evidence that tribes might have obtained them from Arab traders before migrating into South Africa, but they certainly became more widely used once they could be sourced from the Dutch.
They were prized because they were a lot more versatile & durable than the traditional clay cooking pots, & perfect for cooking phutu, a staple corn porridge.
Mass production of these cast iron pots began in Britain in 1707 when Abraham Darby patented a method of sand casting them in hollow moulds using set patterns. This increased pot production, lowered the cost & meant uniformity of size & shape. Prior to this, they were difficult to make & quality was variable.
The term “potjiekos” was first used by the mostly Dutch originating Voortrekkers, & is derived from the words potjie (small pot) & kos (food).
Being forced to cook outside in Africa, especially while trekking, led to the addition of the now traditional 3 legs at the bottom of the belly pots. What started out as a Dutch Oven was given a makeover to enable it to stand over hot coals outdoors, & the style of the traditional potjie pot has remained pretty much the same until today.
My husband, like many other cooks, hangs his pot on a tripod. The pot then hangs on a chain so it can be lifted & lowered as required. This allows for a bit more height between the coals and the pot.
There is a vast selection of potjies available today, they vary in size, shape, flat-bottomed to legged. They are great for cooking as the food is effectively steamed in layers over a constant heat. Food that needs a longer cooking time is added first, with quicker cooking vegetables being added later. There is an art to it, but learning can be creative, fun & sociable. It can also feed a crowd on a budget as although there are many new recipes, cheap & tough cuts of meat come out tender & tasty. The food has a unique taste because every pot is different. The porous cast iron material contributes to the flavour of the dish. Scroll down for recipes.
Photo created by John Karwoski Creative Commons Licence , Disclaimer at the bottom of the page Source
There really is not such thing as a “correct” recipe. You can use any meat, any vegetables, any seasoning that you like. The success of failure of a potjie is in the method.
Around 4 hours
Meat, veg & seasoning (potato to be layered on the top to seal)
Some oil depending on the meat
Enough fire material to keep a steady heat for a long time
Make a fire, practice will tell you when the coals are the right temperature.
In the pot, brown the meat to seal it. Some people coat the meat in flour, some brown it with onions and add tomato, some don’t. Add lots of water, and seasoning to taste. Place the closed pot over the coals and grab a beer. The water will boil at first, then should be kept just off the boil. The levels will drop as the food steams.
Chat and enjoy the sun, read the paper, throw a ball for the dog, have fun. You could check the meat every 30 minutes or so, some prefer to leave it as it is in the closed pot until they feel hunger pangs. Most people say opening the pot it taboo as it breaks the seal & ruins the meal.
Add your vegetables. Root vegetables are popular, but corn & greens work too. Cut large vegetables onto chunky sized pieces, & remember that as the food steams, the green ones are likely to dissolve into the gravy. Layer potato on top to seal the pot, close and leave for about another 40 minutes. Do not stir.
Eat when hungry. Serve with rice or sadza or pap.
Scroll up to get your own potjie – the first link is for the UK, the second is for the USA
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