“Cooking is all about people. Food is one of the only universal things that really has the power to bring everyone together. No matter the culture, around the world, people get together to eat.” - Guy Fieri
Around the world, you’ll find most countries have a signature dish. A dish that proudly emulates the spirit of the country. On this plate you’ll find history laced in aromas that conjure up feelings of familiarity and comforting memories. It’s a dish you call home.
Typical dishes around the world include Spanish paella, Italian pasta and British bangers and mash. South Africa is a country made up of 11 official languages and cultures but most South African can agree that potjiekos is unquestionably one of our national dishes.
Potjiekos, named for the pot it’s made in, can be considered one of the quintessential meals of Southern Africa. So, let’s explore some of this dish’s history, how it became a firm favourite and how to prepare and care for a potjie pot. We’ll also include fail-proof tips ensuring your potjiekos is always lekker!
Potjiekos was introduced when the Dutch settlers arrived. They brought with them the signature potjie pot or as it was known back then and to the rest of the world, the Dutch Oven. Originally it hung by a chain over a kitchen hearth. The version we know today stands rather than hangs over an open flame on three short legs. This design change happened out of necessity during the Great Trek when cooking outdoors in the bush became the norm.
As the Dutch ventured deeper inland, so too did the potjie pot. New communities adopted the pot because it retained heat, could be kept simmering over only a few coals, and its shape held in steam, tenderising tough meat.
What makes Potjiekos so well loved is its ability to bring people together. It can be enjoyed by anyone, rich and poor, young and old, urbanite and country folk. There are no rules in terms of ingredients and as long as you follow the simple rules you’ll have a winning potjie every time:
P is for Preparation
Potjie pots are cast iron, so before your first cook, you need to prepare it correctly. This is in case there are any unappealing elements inside the pot that will affect the flavour of your meal and will release offensive colouring resembling a witch’s brew.
Cooking with Your Cast Iron Pot
- Wash out with hot soapy water and steel wool. Leave to dry.
- Coat the inside with any cooking oil and place on heat until oil begins to smoke.
- Allow to cool
- Wipe with a paper towel.
- Repeat until the paper towel comes out clean.
Caring for Potjie Pot
- After each use wash, dry and coat with any cooking oil.
- Don’t put your potjie pot in a dishwasher.
- Don’t use sharp metal utensils in your pot.
- Once clean, fill your pot with crumpled newspaper and keep the lid off. The newspaper absorbs moisture and prevents rust.
- If you find rust, scrub the rust off with fine wire wool and hot soapy water until the rust is removed.
- Then be sure to repeat the curing process before cooking in it again.
Hot Pot Tips
- The idea is to layer ingredients. Meat is always the first layer. After that, ingredients are thrown in from longest cooking time to the shortest. The closer to the bottom of the pot means closest to the fire and longer cooking time.
- Never stir a potjie, allow flavours to stew without tampering.
- Place your coals outside of the potjie pot legs and the heat will do the rest.
- Keep the lid on. Resist the urge to look inside the pot, no matter how delicious it smells.
- Fry your spices before adding the meat. This brings out the flavour.
- If you want to save time, fry off any meat and partially cook potatoes ahead of time.
- Keep your fire small, if the pot gets too hot you will burn the food.
- Don't boil your potjie, it is meant to simmer for a lengthy period.
- Keep a potato aside and put it in last, right at the top of the pot. When this potato is done, the rest of the pot should be done too.
- If it goes wrong for some reason, chutney can disguise almost any mistake.
The Final Stir
Potjiekos is a slow meal that takes nearly an entire day to prepare, cook and then finally enjoy. It’s a ceremony that brings people together.
“I love a good potjie. In fact, I consider potjie to be one of the purest parts and fundamental ways of having a braai.” - Jan Braai, Cookbook Author
“A potjie is something I cook when I'm at home with my family. It's a wholesome meal that brings us all together.” - Terror Lekopa, Head Chef at the Saxon Hotel