Thursday, February 18, 2010

Biltong, blatjang, and marmite

The other day I drove to the mighty Drakensberg (mountains of the dragon) that snake down South Africa from the Limpopo province, through Mpumalanga, into the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, and end up in the landlocked mountain country of Lesotho. This gave me ample time to think about one of my favourite topics – food.

All of the writers of this blog have lived in multiple countries, so I started wondering what they missed when they moved from one country to another. I can remember when I first went to live in the States being amazed that some of my staple foods were not available there. In retrospect, it was a strange collection of edibles.

Almost all South Africans – certainly white ones – miss biltong. It is to South Africa what jerky is to the USA, except that it is consumed in large quantities. It is made by drying strips of meat – from cattle, from the various antelopes such as springbok, kudu, or eland, or from ostriches – by rubbing large amounts of salt on it. When the meat has dried substantially, the salt is scraped off, and a mixture of spices rubbed in, such as pepper and coriander seeds. Finally the meat is hung to dry even further. We always joke that the best biltong should always have a few blue-bottle flies in it too.

Not being able to find biltong in the States in 1971, I immediately brought some back from South Africa on my next trip. To my chagrin, it was confiscated at customs for being a threat to American security. I wasn’t convinced of that reason though, because the customs officer had started to drool the moment I mentioned I had biltong in my luggage. To this day, 40 years after my first visit, I am often asked as I step off the direct Delta flight from Johannesburg “Do you have any biltong?”

Biltong is best savoured with a glass of cold beer, but is also served as a snack in its own right, or as a topping to a salad. There are now so many South Africans living in North America that several South African shops have opened offering biltong – made in the USA, of course. It’s not quite the same – probably due to the Federal Food and Drug Administration’s ban on blue-bottle flies in food.

When I arrived in Illinois in 1971, I was also shocked at how little curry was eaten in the Midwest. In fact, most people I met had never had any at all. South Africa has a large Indian population, originally brought in to harvest sugar cane on the east cost. So curry is a staple dish, usually mutton or chicken. It is inevitably accompanied, in addition to the normal sambals, by blatjang (chutney). And not any old blatjang! It has to be Mrs. Ball’s Oorspronklike Resep blatjang (Original Recipe chutney). It is a staple in every kitchen. It would be interesting to find out how many millions of bottles of this delicious mango chutney have been taken overseas to homesick ex-pats.

A common accompaniment to afternoon tea in South Africa is toast and Marmite. It is a yeast extract and is black gooey paste in a distinctive bottle. Today Marmite is readily available in the States, but when I arrived in the States so many years ago, it was nowhere to be found. So I had to add Marmite to the food hampers I brought back from South Africa.

Another surprise on setting foot in the States was how unpleasant I found the chocolate. After each Hersheys I consumed, I felt a residue coating my mouth. It felt like a wax of some sort. So, of course, chocolate was added to my hamper, usually Cadbury’s – at least until I discovered some of the wonderful Swiss (Lindor – sigh) and Belgian chocolates. In addition there were two chocolate bars that I found nowhere other than South Africa, so they too accompanied me on my flights. The first was Peppermint Aero – soft peppermint with pockets of air, covered with milk chocolate. The second was Rowntree’s Peppermint Crisp – my favourite (now produced by Nestlé). This is a bar of crystalline peppermint (hence the ‘crisp’) coated with milk chocolate. Fortunately neither of these was a threat to American security.
The final addition to my hamper was Peck's fish paste – a reddish anchovy paste, usually enjoyed on toast. I enjoy it as a savoury topping to breakfast toast or as an alternative to afternoon tea’s Marmite. I’ve also been known to stick my finger into the jar and suck the paste off, bypassing the toast altogether! I’ve thought of approaching Marmite this way too, but I have this recurring vision of the paste being absorbed into the skin and my finger or hand turning permanently black. (This would have posed an intriguing racial classification problem in the old South Africa!)

Of course there are other foods that wandering South Africans hanker for, but the ones above are those I most frequently carried from one continent to another. But I did leave out zoo biscuits (cookies) – not the boring ones found in the States, but rather heavy icing-covered ones with an animal vaguely outlined in icing of a different colour. These are best eaten by gnawing off the biscuit from under the icing, leaving only the icing, which is then nibbled so as to leave only the animal. The final stage of this gastronomic event is chomping off the head of the animal, followed by the swallowing of the body. I think I last did this when I was 53.

And I did leave out South African wines – even today selling for less than US$10 per excellent bottle. I have been known to carry over two dozen bottles on flights from Johannesburg to the States – a case of hand luggage weighing more than checked! Of course, this is no longer possible, for which my back thanks George Bush.

Anyway, I better go and have some breakfast. My tummy is rumbling noisily.

I’d be interested in hearing about the foods you ex-pats miss as you travel in either direction from your various abodes.

Stan – Thursday

PS. I am delighted to see that Tim’s political non-party IXNAY has been joined by a well-known US Senator.


  1. Stan, I tried Biltong once. Once. Like eating the leather from a shoe belonging to a tramp with athlete's foot. Each to their own though. I am equally hostile to Marmite.

    For me, the things I miss are Yorkshire Tea and Timothy Taylor's Landlord bitter. In fact, any kind of bitter. Lager beer I find too gassy; I love wine, spirits have their place, but sometimes you can't beat a foaming pint of warm ale.

  2. i miss hudut, which is basically fish poached in coconut milk with grated plantains, seaweed juice, and soursop ice cream the most.

  3. What is soursop ice cream made of?

  4. soursop is the fruit. it's also called guanábana.

  5. I have had to devise a "lus list" for my mother who advised me that she was concerned about the massive biltong component on it and the ability to get same into the US. I duly did some research just now and found some shops and websites that make it in the US and ship it out - I viewed pictures of biltong, chutney, rusks, gherkins and I wept, I kid you not - after 18 months of living in Cali.

  6. Gee, Stan... you left out Roibos and Marie Biscuits! Even now I miss those wonderful Wednesday evening meals at your parent's house in J'burg.


  7. boerewors?

    The coriander smell of boereowors over red-hot coals, that's what I miss.

  8. How true. Boerewors in the bush with a Windhoek lager!