South African Braai Tales – from ghellie to gourmet
This piece was written for Mango Juice inflight magazine December 2013
Sunshine in South Africa calls for outdoor pursuits and the beloved tradition of braaiing has been declared a national pastime. We explore the local love of meat-on-coals and give you tips on braaing cuts you may not have previously considered.
For the Love of Shisa Nyama
Our adoration of all things braai has led to some expressing a desire to rename Heritage Day, National Braai Day. Since 2003, Mzoli Ngcawuzele has had visitors both local and foreign visit his butchery in Khayelitsha for braai’d meat and a good party. Viki Mangaliso’s family butchery, Nomzamo in Langa, which she now heads, adopted the braai-attached-to-a-butchery concept some 30 years ago. Shisa nyama or ‘hot meat’ with or without a barbeque sauce is here to stay.
Down Memory lane
Chef Reuben Riffel recalls fondly the large family braais of his youth and standing around a fire made in a ‘ghellie’ can (a large drum or paint tin), shooting the breeze on warm nights. The actual braai only started when hunger pangs set in, thus making the braai an element of a larger social activity and not just the means of preparing the food.
Fritz Brand, web developer and blogger at Real Men Can Cook, shares, “My earliest braai memory is of being tasked with fetching the wood and building the fire on Sunday afternoons, under Dad’s watchful eye. I took this job very seriously, and particularly enjoyed being rewarded afterwards with a chop straight off the grid as soon as they were cooked. This was the ‘braaier’s prerogative’, reserved for the braaier and his assistant.”
For most South Africans, the concept of braai involves a dose of sunshine or a windless evening and socialising with friends and family over several hours. Occasionally some do conduct the slap-up version of after-work meat on the fire for an uncomplicated meal.
Brand associates a roaring fire in an uncomplicated oil drum, his preferred braai vessel, with chatting and unwinding with friends.
Riffel’s new book, Reuben on Fire (Quivertree) is dedicated to adding a special but achievable touch to your braai with tips, humourous anecdotes and extravagant twists, a little way from the days of his ghellie can rendezvous.
The Perfect Marinade
Reuben on Fire provides several ideas for sprucing up your meat. The basic seasonings of salt, pepper and Worcestershire sauce are great building blocks and won’t let you down. Some won’t braai without masala and fresh garlic, for others it’s an overnight marinade in a secret sauce and others yet, a grinding of salt is more than sufficient.
The Braai Sides
There are perennial braai side favourites like potato salad with sliced boiled eggs and mayonnaise, baked beans with diced tomato and chilli, pap, the ubiquitous three bean salad and corn on the cob with lashings of butter and Aromat. Riffel reminisces about sweet and sour chicken, turtledoves, sweet potato and mielies too.
Sweet watermelon, fridge-cold and sliced thickly, is possibly the suburban braai dessert most of us associate with summer. A university resident mate I knew used to long for the watermelon left to chill in the family pool, eaten before and after a braai.
(try these Watermelon Vodkatinis for a little pool-side glam)
Reuben on Braaing
What is your our ideal South African Christmas Braai menu?
- Seafood paella bombs, which are stuffed bell peppers filled with mixed seafood, basil and Israeli couscous
- Seared beef with anchovy cream, fried garlic and onion
- Duck breasts with morello cherries, fennel and braai potato dauphinoise
- Grilled tropical fruit with Malibu and homemade vanilla ice cream
Braai desserts are a novel concept. What could compete with traditional Christmas pudding?
I suggest you marinate papaya, sweet melons and kiwis in strong jasmine tea with mint, lime and sugar. Place on a hot clean grill over the braai until the fruit are marked. Melt white chocolate in a foil pack with Cinzano Bianco and grated orange rind. Mix this through vanilla whipped cream and serve with the cooled grilled fruit.
Ask the Meat Merchant
Andy Fenner (31) is a Cape Town based meat merchant at Frankie Fenner, a former food writer and an aspiring butcher. “I sling meat,” he says. His days are filled researching cuts of meat, liaising and overseeing block men. “My strength is advising people on how to cook each cut,” he enthuses.
Meaty advice from Andy
A great burger: is an obvious choice for the braai but much thought goes into the ultimate patty. For Andy, it’s a combination of chuck, brisket and sirloin.
Skirt steak: a thin, fibrous cut that needs to be cooked very quickly over a scorching hot fire. Slice it across the grain and serve it on tortillas with homemade guacamole and salsa.
Brisket: requires a long, slow cook over indirect heat. Rub with a mix of mustard powder, black peppercorns, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, rosemary and brown sugar.
Bone-in rib eye: the classic steak cut. Cook it medium to medium-rare. Serve with anchovy butter.
Both Fenner and Riffel make special mention of beef tongue as a lesser loved part that can make magic on the braai.
The important part of this recipe comes with the poaching of the tongue, which you want to do for about three hours in the best stock you can muster. Once done, remove and allow it to cool. Peel off the membrane and cook it over medium coals for a few minutes per side (as you would a good slab of steak). When you’re happy with the charred markings, remove and slice finely. That tongue is loaded with flavour and all it really needs is some really good pickles, crusty bread and mustard.
Beef tongue works well on the braai, for an alternative to traditional salads. Serve it with salsa verde or a sweet mustard sauce.
Braai School with Fritz Brand
1. As with any form of cooking, heat control is essential. Make sure you have a small fire going on the side to provide extra coals if you find yourself running out of steam halfway through, and some method of raising the grid if things heat up too quickly.
2. Know your meat. For example, chicken should be cooked slowly over low heat, while steak should be cooked quickly over high heat. Plan your braai accordingly, don’t try to do everything at once and make sure you have enough coals to go the distance.
3. Use wood if you can, preferably native to the area you find yourself in. For me it’s like the ‘terroir’ aspect that wine geeks emphasise.
I asked Twitter for suggestions for great braai sides. Mango loves:
@Foodandthefab Huge brown mushrooms with knobs of garlic butter, braaied until the butter melts. My favourite.
@Foodandthefab lightly steamed broccoli and plain yoghurt salad, sprinkled with sunflower seeds or roasted pumpkin seeds. Dress with dill
Butchers for Braai Meat around South Africa
Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants: 81 Church Street, Cape Town.
Bill Riley: 2 Steenbras St, Brooklyn, Cape Town
Continental Butchery: 534 Ridge Road, Overport,
Rembrandt Butchery: 4th Avenue, Linden
Heydenrychs: 36 Uitenhage Road, Sydenham