Introduction: How to Make Potjiekos

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"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. ItsP for pig followed by KOI without the K, thenKEY then K then TOSS without the T so all together it should bePOI-KEY-KOSS, "potjiekos".  

The Structure:
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.

The Art:
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. )
A spoon

I used the following in this "potjie"
50 ml cooking oil
250g carrots
250g cauliflower
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.   

Step 1: Preparing the Potjie

When you have just purchased your new three legged cast iron "potjie" you should initiate it. I will explain here how it is done as mine is years old and well worn in. You take your new pot, stuff it full of vegetation like potato peels, skins and leaves of vegetables that you would normally throw away. Add water and cook it in the same way you would prepare a meal for about 2 hours. Once done you will throw it all away.

The initiation process gets rid on the factory varnish and oil that the pot is covered with. You should now wash the pot out thoroughly, very lightly oil it to prevent rust and stow it away for when you are ready to prepare a real "potjie"

Step 2: Starting a Potjie

A "potjie" is made up of layers. The bottom layers is the meat, the middle layer the vegetables and the top layer the starch. A "potjie" is a very informal way of preparing food and as such it is very difficult to provide amounts or specific recipes for the dishes. The reason for this is that it all depends on the size of the pot and the specific type of "potjie" being made. You can add any ingredients you want to add nothing is wrong, just unique. To assist I will give a few recipes at the end but feel free to experiment and "gaan mal".( indulge yourself and "go crazy" in Afrikaans) because you can practically not mess up a "potjie" if you stick to the four basic 'rules'.

1st Rule
Potjiekos is made up of layers and their order is important. (Always meat at the bottom, then vegetables and then starch).

2nd Rule
Potjiekos is cooked slowly ( 2 to 3 hours) with moderate heat. (Plan well as this dish does not like to be rushed.)

3rd Rule
Use enough, but not too much, liquid. This is NOT soup or a stew.

4th Rule
Do not lift the lid unless you want to serve the meal or suspect something is wrong with the "potjie".

Traditionally it is prepared outside, on the ground, over coals. I am however using a gas cooker to demonstrate how easily this also adapts to "potjiekos" cooking. I am using a special adapter / fitting widely available in South Africa for "potjiekos" cooking.

Step 3: Preparing the Meat

The 1st layer is the meat. Add a bit of oil to the "potjie" and heat it up to the point where it will fry onions and/or mushrooms. I used 50ml of oil, one chopped onion and some mushrooms,  but it all depends on the size of your pot and the amount of people you want to feed. Once the onions and mushrooms are "frying" nicely, add the meat and "stir" it around regularly to get it all nice and brown
searing the juiciness in.

Step 4: Adding the Vegetables

After you have browned the meat, to sear in the juices, you must add the vegetables. The meat should not be cooked or done but only browned. Add the vegetables to the "potjie" making sure that you get an even spread throughout the "potjie" of everything you add. DO NOT STIR THE POTJIE! Use a spoon, ladle or your hands, which you hopefully have washed well before preparing the "potjie" , to move vegetable pieces around the inside of the "potjie" to get an even distribution.

Step 5: Adding the Starch

The starch is the last layer to be added and can be potatoes, pasta, rice or anything else starchy.

TIP: Cut potatoes up into slices and "pack" the slices on top of the vegetables like floor tiles. This will cause the liquid to be trapped and the vegetables and potatoes will steam. This enhances the flavor of the vegetables.

NOTE: Remember that pasta and rice need more liquid than potatoes so when you pour the sauce over pasta the liquid should cover all the pasta.

Step 6: Adding the Sauce

The sauce is a very important part of a "potjie". Many people add beer or wine to the "potjie" to give it a distinct flavor. It this case I just used a packet of sauce I bought from the store. You mix it up with water and "Hey presto" instant sauce! You can use anything, be creative. I have used mustard, tomato sauce (ketchup) and chutney all mixed up with some water and herbs and it came out great. Experiment! That is what makes "potjiekos" so great and versatile. There is no one recipe. Whatever you add, if you follow the basic rules, is also a "potjie". You can make a vegetarian "potjie", cut out the meat, but stick to the layers. The different vegetables will now be in layers. Make seafood, or game, I made a sausage "potjie" once using 6 different kinds of sausages all cut up into pieces. Its all up to you.

Step 7: Put the Lid on the Potjie

Replace the lid and do not lift it until you are ready to serve the meal. Listen close to the side of the lid. The "potjie" should be talking to you. You should hear it bubble slightly, just simmering away, one bubble or pop every second or two. This is the correct sound you should be hearing. Any violent bubbling or boiling means the heat is too high and the meat will probably get bunt at the bottom. During this period, which is about 2 hours, you must constantly "listen" to the "potjie" "talking" to you through the side of the lid and adjust the temperature accordingly by adding or removing heat at the bottom of the pot. With a gas cooker you would turn it up or down and with a wood or coal fire you would remove or add coals to the bottom of the pot. It can take up to 10 minutes to respond to these changes so be patient. Never turn the heat off completely and then put it up full blast later. This will ruin the potjie.

Step 8: Time to Serve Up

After about 2 hours or more of simmering and bubbling away it is time to serve up the meal. It has already turned dark outside as I started preparing the "potjie" in the late afternoon. I have brought the "potjie" inside but the lighting was not that great. The video shows the way the potjie should be bubbling when listened to. I have taken the lid off as I am going to serve up the meal for my family. Bon Appetit everyone! (The meal was delicious! The meat was wonderfully soft and the vegetables were juicy. If you do not believe me try it yourself.)

Step 9: Aftercare

After you are done with the "potjie", freeze whatever is left for a quick meal some other time. Clean the pot out thoroughly. Dry the inside well to stop rust forming. Before you store it away wipe the inside with some cooking oil, olive is best, to further prevent rust. A cooking spray should also work. There should be no gathering of oil at the bottom of the pot. Before you use it the next time, clean it out with soap and water, then rinse thoroughly and you're good to go.

Step 10: Recipe 1: Mutton Shank Potjie

1 kg mutton shank, sawn into slices
15 ml cooking oil
250 g onions, sliced
Black pepper
500 ml meat stock
500 g potatoes, sliced
250 g green beans
250 g baby marrows, sliced
250 g mushrooms, whole if small otherwise sliced
4 spring onions
250 g tomatoes, skinned and chopped
5 ml chopped fresh oregano or 2 ml dried
Pinch of ground cloves
1 ml paprika
15 ml fresh rosemary or 5 ml dried

 Brown the shank pieces in the heated oil. Add the onion and sauté until transparent. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour the heated stock mixture over shank pieces. Turn down the heat. Arrange vegetables on top of meat in the following order from top to bottom:
potatoes, green beans, baby marrows, mushrooms and spring onions.
 Spoon the chopped tomato on top of the vegetables. Sprinkle with oregano, cloves, paprika and rosemary. Cover with the lid and simmer for about 2 hours. Do not stir during cooking process!

NOTE: Use a big enough "potjie" for all the ingredients. A No.3 pot should do, take about 2 hours to prepare and feed about 4 people.

Step 11: Recipe 2: Chicken and Sherry Potjie

1 kg chicken portions
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp cooking oil
2 large onions
300 g button mushrooms
300 g frozen peas
8 large carrots, sliced
Black pepper
1 bay leaf
125 ml water or more
125 ml dry sherry
250 ml sour cream

Heat the potjie up. Chop the onions and fry them in butter and oil in the "potjie" then add the chicken and fry it until brown. Turn down the heat. From now on do not stir anymore. Layer with mushrooms, peas and sliced carrots. Add seasoning, add the bay leaf in the middle and a half a cup of water. Cover and simmer for about 1 hour, by which time the food will have a good sauce. Now add the sherry and sour cream, but do not stir, and simmer for another 30 minutes. Serve with bread to soak up the sauce.

Note: It serves 5 to 6 people in a number 3 "potjie" and takes about 90 minutes

Step 12: Recipe 3: Butternut and Lamb Potjie

8 pieces of lamb chops
4 onions (two chopped and two quartered)
3 table spoons of mixed, chopped, herbs (thyme, rosemary, parsley, oregano)
Olive oil for frying the meat and onions
3 large carrots (chopped)
1 large butternut (1/4 chopped into small blocks, the rest chopped big).
1/3 of a bottle of red wine
2 heads of broccoli
2 tins of tomato and onion mix (called 'sheba' in South Africa) 
2 handfuls of baby potatoes
Black pepper

Get the pot quite hot, fry the chopped onions and brown the meat by putting in some olive oil, fry the chopped onions till they start going translucent. Then put the meat it and brown, add some black pepper and salt to taste. Put in the potatoes, carrots, small chopped butternut, tomato and onion mix, mixed herbs and then the wine. Add the big butternut pieces and  broccoli op top. Turn down the heat so that the pot is simmering slowly. Cook for at least an hour, preferably two.

Note: A Number 3 "potjie" should serve about 5 to 6 people. The dish should cook for at least 2 hours.

Step 13: Recipe 4: Spicy Seafood Potjie

15 ml brown sugar
15 ml sweet soy sauce
30 ml fresh basil, roughly chopped
30 ml fresh parsley, roughly chopped
1 kg fresh or frozen white fish like hake "steaks"
500 g prawns, shelled and cleaned
1 kg frozen marinara mix (A convenient ready-to-use selection of squid (calamari), mussels, shrimp, crab sticks and fish all chopped up and ready to go. You should find this ready packed and frozen at your local super market or department store. Substitute it with any sea food mix that makes a gumbo or a soup.) 
2 lemons (juice only)
250 ml thick cream
10 mussels in their shells
20 ml olive oil
30 ml butter
2 large onions
10 ml garlic, crushed
10 ml ginger, grated
20 ml seafood spices
250 g fresh black mushrooms, sliced
410 g tomatoes
375 ml fish stock
125 ml sherry

In a large potjie, heat the oil and butter and then add the onions, garlic, ginger and seafood spices and fry them for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, tomatoes, fish stock, sherry, sugar and soy sauce and simmer gently for 20 - 30 minutes. Add the basil and half the parsley, then remove three quarters of this mixture from the pot and layer it, alternating with the seafood. Start with the white fish, then the prawns, then the marinara mix . Add the lemon juice, secure the lid and allow to simmer for 30 - 40 minutes without stirring. Just before serving, add the cream, mussels and the remaining parsley and heat up a bit for about 10 - 15 minutes.
Serve with white rice and a green salad.

Note: Serves 6-8 people out of a number 3 pot after about 90 minutes of cooking time.

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