Many Namibians grew up eating jaffles. These are sandwiches stuffed with minced meat, tomato and onions and cooked over the flame of a primus stove using a special tool, the jaffle pan. In years gone by, it was a staple at public events such as sports tournaments, church bazaars, and at fundraisers. Together with sosaties and koeksisters, jaffles were among Namibia’s earliest street food icons.
Over the years, it appears as if this iconic dish has been put on the back burner, so to speak. Perhaps, to make way for the onslaught of globalized fast food dishes such as the hamburger. It appears as if the jaffle fell victim to the quest for greater convenience. Or did it?
Origins of the Jaffle
Firstly, jaffles did not originate in South African as many people may have thought. It originated in Australia. The jaffle iron was designed, named and patented in Australia in 1949 by Dr Ernest Smithers. The electric version of the Jaffle Maker was also patented in Australia by John O’Brien. He was the son of the founder of the Australian kitchen appliance manufacturer, Breville.
Second, it is thought that the jaffle was inspired by the ‘waffle’. The English word ‘waffle’ stems from the Dutch word ‘wafel’ and dates back to around the end of the 13th century. Prior to that, the French had ‘walfre’ which originally meant honeycomb or cake. The practice to cook thin flat cakes between two pieces of iron dates back even further to the Greek who cooked flat cakes called ‘obelios’ between two hot metal plates.
The practice to imprint a motive on the metal plates developed during the Middle Ages when it became popular to imprint religious motives on the iron plates used for making communion wafer irons. By the 15th century, the waffle iron with its classic grid motive started appearing in Belgium and so the iconic contemporary wafelijzer was born.
The jaffle iron has a simple yet clever design. It consists of two hinged, concave, round or square, cast iron (or aluminium) plates on long handles. Although its “clamshell” design resembles a waffle iron, it does not have that appliance’s honeycomb pattern. Jaffle irons are used to heat, toast and seal a sandwich — the jaffle — consisting of two slices of bread enclosing a filling.
The jaffle is now a global dish albeit not always called by its original name. In the USA the jaffle iron is known as a ‘pie iron’, a ‘pudgy pie iron’, a ‘tonka toaster’ or a ‘toastie iron’ and used with a variety of savoury and sweet fillings ranging from the bog-standard ham and cheese to the more outlandish s’mores. These appliances date back to the 1920s. Much more recently South African born chef, Meryl van der Merwe established Jafflz a chain that sells gourmet jaffles.
In India the jaffle iron is used to prepare a popular street food dish the “Bombay (or Mumbai) sandwich”. The filling is commonly made with vegetables and herbal chutney and fried over an open flame by street vendors.
A peek into the past suggests that the intended use of the jaffle iron has always been the outdoors. In 1949 the Western Mail in Perth wrote the following about the jaffle iron: “Really useful for everyday cooking as well as parties is the Jaffle Iron which is very simple to use and produces a most appetising toast “pie.” All that you do is make a thick sandwich and, after clamping it shut in the iron, heat it over a flame. It may be used over any type of heat and we suggest that if you are having a barbecue it might be an idea to provide your guests with three or four bowls of appetising filling and let them make their own.”
No wonder than that the long handled jaffle iron became so popular among those that liked to cook outdoors, in campsites, on the streets and at the markets.
From jaffle to snackwich
In 1924 Charles Champion patented an electric version of the jaffle iron called the “Tostwich”. It took a while for the electric toasters to become popular. In 1974 Australian appliance maker Breville launched their electric Original Jaffle Maker” which was an instant hit with consumers. Within the first year, it sold 400,000 units within Australia alone. Today Breville estimates sales of over six million units worldwide.
As it turns out, the humble jaffle has been reinvented and is now more popular than ever. It is made by a variety electrical appliance that goes by a variety of new names depending on where in the world you find yourself. Breville (after the maker of the appliance), snackwich maker, sandwich maker, or toastie maker, they once were all just jaffles irons. The jaffle did not die, it just put on an electric blanket and re-invented itself.
 The primus stove was patented (Patent No. 3944) in Sweden in 1892.