Potjiekos /ˈpɔɪkiːkɒs/ or Potjie for short (pronounced “poiki”) is a South African stew. It literally translates to “small pot food”.
South Africans cook many things over open fire, mostly braai meat in an open space that allows them to gather with family and friends, either someone’s backyard, a public park or a shisa nyama.
But it isn’t only grilled meat that South Africans cook over fire, they also have stews! Being an old Dutch colony, South African food has quite a lot of Dutch influence and this is mostly reflected in the Afrikaaners’ food (white South Africans). The potjie is one of those dishes.
First time I heard about the potjie was during my trip to Durban when my hosts tried to describe it to me. They were making it for a charity event the following day during which they would be feeding 50+ people and so from their description, I pictured the potjie to be similar to a concoction from a witch’s huge cauldron.
I only got to experience my first potjie months later, during my stay in the Drakensberg. Our wonderful host made all the guests feel welcomed and brought everyone together outside around the fire to witness the making, or as South Africans call it, the building of a potjie on a chilly night in the mountains. Here is how I recall that night:
In two iron cast pots, some beef chunks and onions were sizzling at the bottom. Our chef had buttered the inside of the pots thoroughly so that the already-seasoned-meat and other ingredients wouldn’t stick later on.
Normally, other potjie chefs would oil the inside of their pots but our chef has his unique ways. We had a beef potjie but if you want to replicate this Afrikaaner dish, any type of meat would work: seafood; chicken, duck, ostrich or any type of poultry; mutton or game meat such as kudu and springbok. I’m unsure if this would ever work as a vegetarian dish but South Africans love their meat so don’t expect to easily find vegetarian potjie or vegetarian braai for that matter.
Second, came the vegetables. Since our chef had prepared two or three salads as sides to go with the potjie, he only added big chunks of carrots in the pots.
A rookie like me would be tempted to stir the content of the pot for it not to stick and to cook evenly but that would actually be a catastrophe when making a potjie: stirring is an absolute no-no while making a potjie and it is only allowed when serving. Other variations of the dish would have cauliflower, mushroom, broccoli, butternut, green beans or all of the above; whatever your taste buds desire.
Last came the starch of the dish. After evenly spreading the carrots in the 2 pots, our host came out of the kitchen with an enormous soup pot full of potatoes cut into bite-size pieces. He emptied the content of that pot, both potato and water, into our potjie and evenly spread it with a ladle.
At this point, I thought the dish was going to be some sort of soup since our chef poured enough water to almost cover the entire content of the pot: meat, veggies and starch. Finally, some green peas to add some colours to the dish and on came the lid. I did not see the content of those pots again until it was time to serve since this was a rule in making potjie: only lift the lid during the cooking process if you think something has gone wrong and that you need to add more water. Although potato is the preferred starch used for potjie, our chef told me pasta or rice would also work. The meat and veggies at the bottom served as a rack for the starch to steam on top.
Our chef had enlisted the help of two sous-chefs, a Durbanite and his teenage son, to help keep an eye on the potjie while he was preparing the side dishes in the kitchen.
Regulating a fire without a stove switch could be quite tricky but for this South African duo, it wasn’t much of a challenge since they are experienced potjie builders. The boy was responsible for breaking tree branches he could find lying around and adding them to the fire while his father made sure the iron cast pots weren’t too close to the fire since the potjie needed to cook at medium heat.
I did not pay attention to the time but from what I can remember that night, the potjie was cooking long enough for us to finish a few glasses of wine and share all kinds of stories. Our lengthy conversations included our respective concert experiences, from Paul McCartney to Metallica to U2; our hosts’ stories travelling in Lesotho and how they got the special recipe for Lesotho bread; our opinions on music and radio nowadays and travel recommendations around the Drakensberg for some newcomers who just arrived that night.
Traditionally, one would serve potjie with pasta or rice that was cooked in the cast-iron pots but since we were in the Drakensberg and geographically close to Lesotho, we had the privilege of having homemade Lesotho bread with our dinner. The Caesar salad and sweet potato mash complemented the richness of the potjie but the best sides that evening were the stories we shared: some of the best food I had were the food for thoughts.
I remembered, in particular, a discussion we had that evening about South African culture, economic and social realities with a German couple travelling through the country. We talked about everything from socioeconomic inequalities in the country to the current government in place. One thing that absolutely shocked them was finding out what cleaning maids were paid hourly: it was barely minimum wage in South Africa.
The conversation went further into an analysis of how much they would make monthly and what the cost of living is for them: subtracting the food cost and transportation cost for them to get to work, they were left with barely half of my monthly rent. In that moment, I made the connection with the stark images of make-shift housing in the townships, a mix of slab, bricks and re-used metal sheets.
We ended the conversation that night with the realization that this country has so much potential but it was still (and I quote the Germans) “pretty fucked up”.