If you're planning a trip to South Africa, expect to see biltong everywhere you go. Biltong is South Africa's favorite snack and an intrinsic part of the country's culture. It is sold in gas stations, at supermarket counters, at transport hubs, and even in upscale restaurants. But what is it?
What Is Biltong?
Essentially, biltong is meat that has been cured and dried. It is served in slices or strips of varying thickness and can be made using a variety of different meats.
Although chicken and even bacon biltong do exist, beef and game are the most common biltong meats. Game (known as venison in South Africa) refers to the animals of the bush - including impala, kudu, wildebeest, and ostrich. Many Americans make the mistake of thinking that biltong is the South African answer to beef jerky - but in reality, it has its own unique ingredients, creation process, cultural role, and history.
The History of Biltong
South Africans have been preserving meat in one form or another for thousands of years. Without fridges or freezers to prevent their meat from spoiling, indigenous hunters used to coat strips of meat with salt before hanging them from the trees to dry. In the 17th Century, settlers from Europe adopted this traditional method of preservation but added vinegar and saltpeter (potassium nitrate) to the curing process. The purpose of doing so was to kill bacteria in the meat, therefore reducing the likelihood of sickness.
In the 19th Century, Dutch farmers known as Voortrekkers left their farms in the Cape, in order to escape the jurisdiction of the British-ruled Cape Colony. They needed portable, non-perishable food to sustain them on their migration north, which became known as the Great Trek. Cured meat was the ideal solution, and most sources credit the Voortrekkers with perfecting the art of biltong-making, thereby creating the snack as we know it today.
How Biltong Is Made
Today, the process of biltong-making remains very similar to that used by the Voortrekkers - albeit with a few modernizations. Choosing a good quality piece of meat is the first step. Typically, when making beef biltong, silverside or topside cuts are the best. Then, the meat must be cut into strips, before being rubbed with or marinated in vinegar. Next, the strips are flavored with a spice mix, which traditionally includes salt, sugar, crushed coriander seeds, and black pepper.
Usually, the strips are left to soak up the spice mix overnight, before being hung up to dry in a well-ventilated spot. Nowadays, specially-crafted drying cabinets make this step of the process easier, affording the biltong maker greater control over temperature and humidity. Traditionally, the drying stage takes around four days; although electric fan ovens can be used to speed the process up considerably. For biltong purists, however, the old ways are always the best.
Health Benefits of Biltong
As well as being an important part of the South African culture, biltong is a healthier alternative to more ordinary snacks like chips and dip. It is an excellent source of protein, with approximately 57.2 grams per 100-gram serving.
The process of drying rather than cooking means that the meat retains most of its nutrients, including important minerals like iron, zinc, and magnesium. For those counting calories, game biltong is often leaner than beef biltong, and therefore a better choice.
Where to Try Biltong
In South Africa and bordering countries like Namibia, sampling biltong is as easy as picking up a vacuum-sealed packet from the nearest grocery store. If you're overseas, however, getting your biltong fix can be a little trickier. Most major cities in the UK and the U.S. have South African outlet stores, like Jonty Jacobs in New York and San Diego; or Jumbo South African Shop in London. At the latter, you'll find biltong alongside other South African delicacies including Rooibos tea, Mrs. Ball's chutney, and Wilsons toffee.
Alternatively, there are several websites that ship biltong and other South African goods, including South African Food Shop in the U.S., and Barefoot Biltong in the UK. If you're feeling really adventurous, you could try making your own biltong at home. There are plenty of websites that offer recipes and guidelines for making the perfect batch - although it is something of an art, and you should expect to give it a couple of tries before achieving good results.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald.