Some of the world’s classic dishes are named after the pot or pan they are cooked in. Such dishes include Paella, Tagine, Sač, Cataplana, Pancake and Nabemono. The latter originated in Japan and refers to ‘all things cooked in a nabe’ (pot). One famous version hereof is chanko nabe or ‘Sumo stew’. Our own potjiekos is another such dish.
Potjiekos is a one-pot dish. Typically, a stew-like dish with a protein (typically meat or chicken or fish) with some vegetables cooked in a three-legged cast-iron pot known locally as a potjie (elsewhere known as a Dutch oven) over an open fire or hot embers.
But potjie also denotes the social event that brings friends and relatives together to socialize during the time it takes to cook the dish. The invitation to the get together is simple: “let’s make a potjie” or “let’s have a potjie”. The potjie is a proper social gathering. They can take an entire day to cook properly; low and slow is the way to go.
Most households have one or more potjies, especially the three-legged variety. These are now a kitchen feature throughout the Southern African region. This is not surprising; these pots are robust and durable, practical and versatile, and quite heat-efficient when used to cook outdoors over an open fire. It is the ideal cooking utensil for this part of the world.
Where do potjiekos come from? To find the origins of the dish, we have to trace the origins of the potjie.
The use of the English word ‘pot’ dates back to about 1180, but the use of cast iron cookware predates that significantly. The Dutch dish “
Not long after the invention of the hutspot, Jan van Riebeeck set sail for the Far East and reached the Cape of Good Hope in April of 1652. These early European settlers brought the cast iron potjie (and also the hutspot) with them. They also baked bread in them, which led to the name “dutch oven” that are still being used to describe the cast iron pots in the USA.
The original potjies were hung from hooks over open fires and were small enough to be taken on trips inland to explore the Cape Colony. The indigenous population came into contact with the cast iron pot and that soon replaced their clay pots. As more and more groups left the Cape Colony to move inland, the potjie became more popular and more people came into contact with it.
For some, like the Voortrekkers, the potjie was an entire kitchen, and all meals were cooked in it. It was ideal for the outdoor-over-open-fire cooking style of the frontier culture where cookware had to be strong and durable enough to survive the rough, long journeys. Most likely potjies were brought to Namibia by early traders, hunters and trans-frontiermen such as the Oorlams Nama that crossed the Gariep (Orange) River into Great Namaqualand (southern Namibia).
Today many people still use the traditional, three-legged potjie to cook at least part of their daily meals in. They have little other option. For others, the stove, and modern pots and pans made from lighter materials have for the most part replaced the potjie. For these more affluent people, potjies and potjiekos became a nostalgic affair; a modest yearning back to the time when the frontier was wild and rough.
For nearly 70 years Falkirk, a company in KwaZulu Natal, was the sole manufacturer of potjies in Southern Africa. Eventually, the company closed down and these days the potjies
Potjies consist of iron (95%), carbon (3.5%) and silicone (1.5%). Its shape is deliberate. The round belly keeps liquid at the bottom of the pot and allows for the even distribution of heat, which makes for more efficient cooking. Modern pots no longer require elaborate ‘seasoning’ before use. Thorough cleaning with soap and water before sealing it with oil is all that is required. If you regularly cook over an open flame and want to avoid heavy soot on the outside, try covering the pot with a thin spread of dishwashing liquid before using it. Once you have finished cooking and the pot has cooled down, it will make it easy to rinse off the soot. Freshly cleaned potjies should be given n light wipe down with cooking oil to prevent rust. Potjies accumulate their unique taste over time, and if properly maintained it should last a lifetime.
They come in different sizes and each size is represented by a unique number. It starts with ¼ (0.7 litres), ½ (1.2 litres), ¾ (2.7 litres) and goes right up to a size 25 (70.5 litres). Sizes 3 and 4 are most common and feeds between 6 and 8 people as a main meal without side dishes.
To make a rough calculation of how many people each pot will feed, it is suggested that the size of the potjie (e.g. 3 or 4) is multiplied with the number of rings on the pot. For example, if the pot is a number 3 and has 4 rings, then it should feed about 12 people when filled up. If you have a smaller group of say 6 people, then the pot should be filled only to the second ring.
Traditionally, potjiekos have been made with tough cuts of meat, but these days anything goes really: chicken, fish and vegetarian potjies are not uncommon.
The potjie is assembled in layers. The protein is first seared, then seasoned with aromatics such as garlic and onions and spices. A little liquid is added, before the next layer – the hard vegetables that take the longest time to cook – is added. The final layer of softer vegetables that require much less cooking is added on top (and usually at a later stage) before the lid is closed and the food is simmered and steamed until it is done. This could take a few hours, and potjie connoisseurs recommend that the food should be left alone, and the potjie not be stirred. They are adamant that a stirred pot is a stew.
Purists will rally against the notion that ‘anything goes’. Every potjie should have a clear identity.
Considering the origins of the dish, meat is perhaps the single most common ingredient. Beef or mutton is the norm these days but venison may have been more common during the time of the early frontiermen. Chicken and fish are relatively more recent additions. The cuts of meat used for potjiekos require longer cooking times; oxtail, ribs, neck and shanks are thus popular choices.
Water, stock, beer and wine (red, white or dessert), by themselves or in combination are used as cooking liquids. Onion and garlic are the most common aromatic vegetables together with herbs and spices. Curry potjies made with chicken or mutton have grown to be very popular and reflects the influence of Cape Malay and South African Indian cuisine on potjiekos. The use of dried fruit such as prunes in potjies stems from the earliest times when potjie-makers had little access to fresh produce.
Potatoes, carrots, leeks, onions, tomatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, pumpkin and squash are all popular vegetables for potjiekos. Region-specific ingredients like waterblommetjies (Cape-Pondweed or Aponogeton distachyos) give some potjies a distinct local identity.
Potjiekos is normally served with a starch: rice, macaroni, bread, mashed potatoes, samp, maize or even mahangu porridge, are popular options.