If you’ve ever wondered what the South African equivalent of beef jerky is, look no further than biltong. What is biltong? The short answer is: dried meat. Biltong can be chicken, game (kudu, wildebeest, etc.), or beef; although even fish and ostrich are known to be used from time to time. The traditional common ingredients are no more than salt, pepper, coriander, vinegar and the meat itself. Simple, no?
The method for making biltong is deceptively easy. Some recipes call for marinating the meat in vinegar as that is the best way to kill off botulism bacteria that would otherwise be present. Others stick with a rub and an overnight vinegar bath. After the margination period, all that’s left is to dry the meat. Traditionally, the best place to dry biltong is in the South African Highveld… for four days.
One thing to know before going out to find any normal biltong, however, is that biltong is not jerky. We may see them as similar, but ask any South African and you will get a resounding NO in response. Not only is biltong much thicker, but throughout the process – the meat is cured with vinegar. This means it has a distinct texture and flavour, whereas jerky can be flavourless. Distinctly different from beef jerky, biltong also has a healthy reputation. While eating biltong, you can obtain your daily iron, zinc and magnesium.
While biltong doesn’t have a distinct history, it does come from a sense of practicality. Biltong was primarily created out of the need for long-term preserved meats that could sustain a tribe. Whether a tribe wanted to ensure their livelihood throughout winter or whether a group of travellers needed sturdy food during migration: biltong delivered. But time wasn’t the only factor that led to the creation of biltong. Just look at the South African climate! There weren’t refrigerators on every street corner – so freezing wasn’t an option. That left drying, and hence: biltong.
You can’t enter a South African grocery store without finding biltong. It is being sold more often throughout Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States – although its popularity is still at its height in its home country. Try to find your local South African store or go online to South African Food Shop in the United States or Barefoot Biltong in the UK. This is one food that you might want to reconsider before making at home given the risk of botulism but that doesn't stop you from ordering Starter Packs and delicious packets of biltong for yourself.
Let us know if you’ve tried biltong in the past or if you’re inspired to give it a taste. I can personally recommend Kudu as my favourite biltong flavour. Speaking as someone who is not a fan of dried meat, that is a high recommendation.