July 23, 2010
The bowl was proudly passed around the living room like candy, obviously intended as a treat for the visiting Americans. My new South African relatives each picked up a bite-sized flake of something reddish-brown, savoring it on their tongue with a sigh.
Chocolate? Dried fruit? I ruled out those options as I got a closer look. No, more like bacon, or…
“Is this jerky?” I asked. Eyebrows shot up as if I’d said something a bit rude.
“No, no. Much better. It’s biltong. It’s a special kind of dried meat,” someone offered. “You must try it.”
Tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to, I thought to myself. Sounds like jerky to me. (Biltong, I learned later, is made from strips of rump meat and literally translates from Dutch to English as to “butt tongue.” Kinda glad I didn’t know that.)
I hadn’t eaten anything resembling jerky since stumbling into a decade of vegetarianism in my late teen years, perhaps to atone for the disturbing number of Slim Jims I consumed in junior high. (Now, those chewy, cylindrical snacks strike me as eerily similar to certain treats in the pet-food aisle.)
But these dear people had invited us into their homes—and their lives—in Cape Town, because of my brother’s marriage. The least I could do is be grateful for whatever they fed us. And the braai they greeted us with had been delicious!
The texture was tough, but not as shoe-leather-like as I expected—I could tear it with my fingers. It tasted salty and rich with umami flavor. Maybe they were right; this wasn’t the stuff of American gas-station gastronomy and vending machines. More like charcuterie than jerky, in fact.
I wished I could say that to the family member who had brought the homemade biltong, but he is deaf and lip-reads only Afrikaans, which I don’t speak. So I simply gave a thumbs-up and reached for seconds. He grinned and rubbed his belly, nodding.
For more about different types of jerky—pardon me, dried meat—around the world, such as Chinese bakkwa, read this interesting piece by Oyster Food and Culture blogger LouAnn.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.