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