I was at a party when I first encountered biltong. It was in a
pretty little bowl next to the crudites and brie wheel, brownish
slivers of dried meat with spices stuck to the edges. I was new to
the country, so was curious about these chewy, salty morsels placed
so proudly on the table.
"Is that a type of beef jerky?" I asked my friend, another
American, as I pointed.
She started laughing.
"Oh, my goodness, don't ever say that to a South African," she
exclaimed. Then she lowered her voice. "It's biltong. They take it
After I had lived here awhile, I started to understand.
Biltong, you see, is much more than a food. It is history and
nationalism and neighborhood pride; the quiet of safari game drives
and the chaos of South Africa's cities; the memories of
refrigeratorless villages and the nostalgia of long-ago braais, or
barbecues. When South African expatriates dream of their sunny home,
the salty, smoky taste of biltong creeps onto their tongues.
"Biltong is this unifying thing among South Africans," says
Caroline McCann, owner of Braeside Meat Market in Johannesburg. "You
go anywhere in the world and say, 'I've got biltong,' and you'll get
10 South Africans running toward you."
To equate it with a Slim Jim, then, is blasphemous.
The word "biltong" is a combination of the Afrikaans words bil
(rump) and tong (tongue or strip). According to legend, the
Voortrekkers of the mid-1800s - those Afrikaners who left farms in
the British-controlled Cape Colony to find new land in Zulu-
controlled areas - tied strips of meat on their ox carts as they
made their way across the subcontinent. They cured those slabs with
vinegar, abundant in the wine-producing Cape region.
But biltong is not just an Afrikaans food. Many black villages in
rural South Africa make their own biltong - it is a way to keep meat
fresh without refrigeration. In the townships, some people fry
biltong and add it to the tomato dressing traditionally served over
pap, the maize porridge that is South Africa's staple starch. In
urban Johannesburg and Cape Town, it is served in the top
restaurants. Today there is even biltong pate and biltong cheese
I have become increasingly familiar with biltong. It is sold in
grocery stores and butcheries, at roadside stands and specialty
shops. In Johannesburg's malls, there are even biltong stores next
to trendy clothing stores.
I have ordered biltong in salads, where the dried meat was mixed
with baby greens, roasted butternut squash, and goat cheese. I have
tasted it in pastas with sun-dried tomatoes. I have eaten it plain
on camping trips. When I went to Kruger National Park on safari, our
game ranger served it in a bowl next to dried mangoes, placed on a
crisp white tablecloth. …