COL­UMN

He strug­gles to un­der­stand why peo­ple love potjiekos so much, says Schalk Jonker.

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That potjie wasn’t nearly big enough to en­sure that ev­ery­one got some­thing of ev­ery­thing, so I told one of my broth­ers to guard the pot.

South Africans love potjiekos. It’s part of our her­itage, they’ll tell you, and the best way to en­ter­tain guests around a fire. “So­cia­ble” and “delicious” are seem­ingly the buzz words to de­scribe potjiekos. Anton Goosen wrote a song about it and claims even Queen Vic­to­ria said the best thing in South Africa was the potjiekos. The late Matie Brink, our very own potjiekos king, wrote sev­eral books on the topic, nu­mer­ous lo­cal TV shows with potjiekos as theme have been pro­duced, and if you turn to Google you’ll have more than 35 000 recipes to choose from in the blink of an eye. Yes, peo­ple re­ally love potjiekos. I’m not one of them. I will prob­a­bly be hanged, drawn and quar­tered in the town square for say­ing it, but I’m sorry... I’m not eas­ily im­pressed with a potjie. I just can’t muster as much en­thu­si­asm as you over a stew that you’re cooking on the coals. Whether it’s a chicken potjie or a leg of lamb with sweet and sour sauce, ox­tail with peaches or a seafood potjie with a twist, I al­ways see the same thing when you proudly lift the lid: veg­eta­bles in a wa­tery sauce with some pale pieces of meat and a bone or three some­where at the bot­tom. There are, of course, also the usual sus­pects when it comes to veg­eta­bles. Car­rots are num­ber one, fol­lowed by things like onion and but­ter­nut. And some­how it al­ways ends up with a flotilla of patty pans on the sur­face. “Pete, these patty pans are delicious!” The hum­ble po­tato is also an hon­ourary mem­ber of the potjie. But I won’t diss it here be­cause it’s usu­ally the one thing that saves me. If it wasn’t for the pota­toes all I would have is a pile of rice with sear­ingly hot car­rots on my plate. On a beau­ti­ful sum­mer’s day next to the pool. And to make mat­ters worse, this wa­tery af­fair is of­ten dished up on a pa­per plate. Bon ap­pétit!

IT’S ALSO THE fan­fare that goes along with the mak­ing of potjiekos that irks me. Ev­ery­one thinks their potjie is unique, but in re­al­ity they’re all more or less the same. Still, the potjie mak­ers are so se­cre­tive about their recipes... es­pe­cially if it’s one with a “twist”. “Wow, Carl. This lamb shank potjie with a twist is amaz­ing. What’s your se­cret?” Carl of course shakes his head and says with a sly grin: “That’s my se­cret.” Oh, Carl. Don’t ever change.

AND WHY MUST THERE al­ways be a twist? I’m sorry, but dried peaches, dates or prunes or brandy with chilli will not trans­form what is es­sen­tially an out­doors stew into a unique meal that can­not be equalled. It sim­ply means that to­gether with the ox­tail, car­rots and onion there are also now dates, prunes and brandy in your pot. I was watch­ing a lo­cal cooking show once where some or other potjie mas­ter was in­vited to cook for the pre­sen­ter and stu­dio au­di­ence. At one stage the pre­sen­ter asked the chef to share a potjie se­cret with the view­ers. “Some­thing that will al­ways guar­an­tee a suc­cess­ful potjie,” ex­plained the ex­pert, “is to first fry your onion and gar­lic to­gether in a bit of oil in the pot.”

Wow! Re­ally? The big se­cret to a tasty potjie is some­thing that al­most ev­ery­one who has ever wielded a wooden spoon knows is the ba­sis of any meal. Thanks for the in­side info! Another thing that gets my blood boil­ing is when peo­ple in­vite you over for a braai but when you ar­rive they “sur­prise” you with a potjie. I’m a man with sim­ple tastes and few things make me hap­pier than a chop, some boere­wors, a braaibrood­jie, and spoon­ful of po­tato salad. And chances are good I’m on my way to your house with a men­tal image of ex­actly that on my plate.

I have a hard time hid­ing my dis­ap­point­ment when I walk in and I see a potjie squat­ting over the coals. My wife knows this and will usu­ally take my arm and whisper some­thing like: “Calm down. Maybe they’re steam­ing mus­sels for a starter.” She’s of­ten wrong. When we (even­tu­ally) sit down with the sloppy meal on our plates in front of us, she has to kick me a few times un­der­neath the table to also – like ev­ery­one else – com­ple­ment the proud chef. I don’t like telling lies, which is why I’ll ut­ter some­thing like: “I re­ally like it when the rice is soft yet firm.”

BUT THE THING that both­ers me most about potjiekos is that no one is ever equally sat­is­fied af­ter the meal. The ear­lier you get to the potjie, the bet­ter. You get the meat and pota­toes, the peo­ple who dish up af­ter you be damned. We once vis­ited my aunt on the farm, and that Sun­day af­ter­noon a bunch of peo­ple from the district came over. It was my aunt’s birth­day or some­thing, and she was mak­ing a game potjie. (Prob­a­bly also with a twist, but I can’t re­mem­ber what it was.) I was 13 or 14 years old and my two younger broth­ers were still in pri­mary school. In those days the kids were served last; the adults were front and cen­tre when the potjie was fi­nally done. One of the adults was a guy called Willem. Willem wasn’t one of the real adults like my dad and mom. He was one of my cousin’s friends and I think they knew each other from the army. But he was older than me and there­fore in front of me in the queue. I checked out the potjie and the in­for­mal queue and quickly did the math in my head: That potjie wasn’t nearly big enough to en­sure that ev­ery­one got some­thing of ev­ery­thing, so I told one of my broth­ers to guard the pot. The plan was to wait for the adults to dish up and then to slip in in front of the sol­diers, stu­dents and older kids in an at­tempt to get some meat on our plate. Af­ter all the adults had dished up, my brother came over to say that I didn’t have to worry. There was still loads of meat left and we would def­i­nitely not lose out. But there was one thing we did not take into ac­count: Willem’s ap­petite. Willem dished up. No, Willem loaded his plate like you would load an ore train. He dug deep, look­ing for the meat, and if there was a pesky carrot cling­ing to the spoon he scraped it off on the side of the pot. His plate was piled sky high – and there wasn’t a patty pan or carrot in sight. It was just rice and meat. Even­tu­ally our turn came and we looked mis­er­ably at what was now ba­si­cally a mushy veg­etable soup at the bot­tom of the pot. None of us were par­tic­u­larly fond of veg­eta­bles, so we dished up very spar­ingly. We lost this round. And while we were sit­ting with our sad por­tions on our laps, Willem walked past with his stacked plate and asked: “Are you laaities on a diet?” Food fit for a king? Tra­di­tion? So­cia­ble? Delicious? I don’t think so. Thanks to Willem and peo­ple like him I’ll gladly pass up a potjie.

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