"Potjiekos" is a traditional Afrikaner dish hailing from South Africa. It originated with the Voortrekkers in the 1800's and is still widely prepared and enjoyed in South Africa today. It is a simple dish, easy to prepare, with few 'rules' but hundreds of variants. When done properly a "potjie" needs little to no supervision and practically prepares itself. It thus allows you time to enjoy the company of your friends and family while preparing the meal. "Potjiekos", translated would mean 'Little Pot' (potjie) 'Food' (kos) and although it resembles a stew it is not a stew and is not prepared like a stew.
In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) "potjiekos" is pronounced poiki:kos however for those of us who do not know IPA here is a layman's pronunciation explanation. Its P for pig followed by KOI without the K, then KEY then K then TOSS without the T so all together it should be POI-KEY-KOSS, "potjiekos".
When "Potjiekos" is prepared it is referred to as building the "potjie" in Afrikaans. The dish is normally prepared in layers and never stirred once the lid is put on. The first layer is normally that of meat. The meat can be sea food, poultry, pork, game, red meat, anything really. Next would normally be the vegetables, then the starch and lastly the sauce would be added. Ingredients that need to cook longer are very often placed closer to the bottom of the "potjie". Sticking to the meat, vegetables, starch tradition works very well if you have enough liquid in the "potjie" and cook it for 2 -3 hours. Everything should then be wonderfully soft, tender and juicy. The difference between a "potjie" and a stew is that a "potjie" is never stirred during the cooking process! Once you have built your "potjie" and put on the lid, you will not lift it again unless it is to serve up the dish. In rare cases, and usually only when you suspect something has gone wrong, will you lift the lid and peer into the "potjie". In such cases it normally is because the "potjie" is running dry and more liquid needs to be added. This is then poured down the sides on the inside of the "potjie" and never in the middle.
The Science and Procedure:
Cooking oil is heated in a pot, usually of cast iron, until very hot. Meat and normally onions as well is then browned by searing it in the oil. This locks in the juiciness of the meat. The meat is not cooked until down, just seared and browned. Vegetables are then packed in layers on top of the meat spreading each kind evenly throughout the dish. It is 'sealed' with a starch traditionally potatoes cut in slices but it can be pasta, rice or anything else. This traps the steam around the vegetables and actually steam cooks them. "Potjiekos" is cooked slowly over a moderate heat source. Traditionally this would be outdoors over coals but today can be done anywhere over any heat source. The dish is slow cooked and the way it is built creates a small pressure cooker effect because the cast iron lids are heavy. The steam build up insides has to become substantial before it starts to leak past the lid.
Champion "potjiekos" cooks prepare their dish in layers, meat at the bottom, then vegetables and then the starch. They then put the lid on and do not lift again until the dish is done. Cooks would listen to the slight bubbling and simmering of the "potjie" by hold a ear close to the lid. This is called listening to the "potjie" talk. The cook listens and then control the heat at the bottom of the "potjie". While holding an ear close to the side of the lid, (be careful not to let escaping steam burn you) the cook should hear a slight bubbling with a bubble every second or two. A rapidly boiling "potjie" is a recipe for disaster. What you should hear is a slight bubble as if the food is simmering. You should never hear something boiling or rapidly bubbling as "potjiekos" is prepared slowly over moderate heat. Adjust the heat source until you hear the desired sound. Remember that it takes a few minutes, sometimes up to 10, before the "potjie" will respond to heat adjustment.
Fun Fact: This entire demonstration, photos and videos, was captured with my Samsung Galaxy S cellphone.
A heat source. (Traditionally a fire prepared outside on the ground. Once coals have formed the fire is split in two. A few coals are for the "potjie" the other is kept going in case more coals are needed later. Nowadays gas is often used as I have in this demonstration.)
A "potjie". (Traditionally it would be a three legged cast iron pot but frequently is flat bottomed. The cast iron is needed because you need a heavy lid to create a slight pressure cooker effect inside the pot but you could actually use a normal pot as well. )
I used the following in this "potjie"
50 ml cooking oil
500g beef, diced
450 - 550 ml of sauce (I bought an off the self packet because I was too lazy to capture that as well)
Wash everything thoroughly with soap and water before you start cooking, including your hands , as you probably will be handling some of the food. Normal hygiene rules apply when working with food so stick to them.
Today's "potjie" is not 'traditional' in the sense that we will not be using an open fire, outside on the ground neither will we be using traditional ingredients like game meat ("wildsvleis" in Afrikaans) . We will however be using the traditional method with ingredients that should be readily available anywhere in the world.