The rich and intriguing history of biltong

If you’re familiar with Southern Africa, you’ll know that biltong, next to a cold beer and a good braai (BBQ), is a cultural stalwart everyone can bond over.

Mention your favorite biltong- or better yet, start reminiscing about that fantastic secret biltong recipe you tried once on holiday! You’ll immediately have a dozen new friends to share a drink and fond memories with.

It’s easy for foreigners to look at this delicious and storied snack and think, ‘oh, it’s just dried meat,’ but you couldn’t be more wrong.

Biltong is food, flavor, and friendship rolled into one.

It’s a snack for the road, a way to share with friends, and a celebration of a meat-loving heritage that reaches back into the roots of history. It helps that it’s delicious, too!

Biltong is beloved throughout sub-Saharan Africa, including Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi, Zambia, and Botswana. It’s most strongly associated with South Africa, and the Afrikaans people are widely credited with inventing it in its modern form.

No mere snack, it’s now a full-blown cultural institution! With that in mind, maybe it’s better forgotten that the word itself originates from the Afrikaans (not Dutch, as you will often see) for ‘rump’ (bil) and ‘tongue’ (tong)…

a less-than-glamorous name for such a tasty treat!

A beloved snack from the land where cattle is king

South Africa’s ties to her cattle herds are deep and rich.

The Zulu nation counted their wealth in cattle, not money, proudly displaying hide shields with intricate meanings while their war machine conquered all that stood in their way.  After all, umnumzane ubonakala ngesibaya sakhe (a man’s status is in the size of his kraal).

From commoner to royalty, the size of your herd showed where you stood in society. Even today, in rural areas of Southern Africa, money in the bank is nice, but a rich cattle herd is where true social wealth lies.
Likewise, hunted meat was a staple for the traveling Voortrekkers, European settlers mostly of Dutch origin.

They were heading inland away from British coastal rule and would eventually become the Afrikaans people, with whom the history of biltong is heavily intertwined.

With nothing but a wagon between you and the elements, carrying and safely storing sufficient food was essential. Tools to do it with were minimal.

Ever innovative, they would thus prepare their meat with vinegar and spices and air-dry it in the wagons’ cold, dry winter air.

Well, that’s one version. Others tell of soldiers slipping strips of kudu under their saddles for the chafing to tenderize it and the horse sweat to flavor it. Either way, it was packed into breathable cloth bags to keep it mold-free for the journey.

And thus, biltong was born.

Preserving meat, creating biltong

It’s far from a novel problem, of course. Man has roamed in search of adventure and prosperity for millennia. Where there are cattle, there is meat to eat- and pre-refrigeration, fresh meat, and a hot climate were a bad match.

Humankind has needed to keep food edible long-term since time immemorial, whether from cattle herds or game hunting. The southern African Khoisan hunter-gatherers would air-dry game meat to preserve it after a kill, one of the first preservation methods ever used.

In hot, dry climates surrounded by raging ocean, using salt and air to kill germs and dehydrate meat for long-term storage makes sense, and the Afrikaaners were on to a good thing (if we ignore the horse sweat).

With the addition of vinegar for acidic taste, soft texture, and long-term longevity, as well as saltpeter (potassium nitrate) to ward off deadly botulism toxins, the result was a delicious and nutritious snack that would last and last.

Soldiers in the Anglo-Boer war claim to have survived lost in the hills for months only because of the trusty biltong in their pack!

As we mentioned, few microbes can grow in an acidic environment, and saltpeter kills many of the most dangerous strains.

Coupled with the anti-microbial powers of spices like pepper, coriander, and cloves and the moisture-free environment created by salting and dehydrating meat, it can last months longer than fresh meat.

With modern vacuum packing, it can last indefinitely if well stored.

Isn’t this just jerky? Is it like South African Beef Jerky?

Oooo… that’s fighting talk on the continent!

While they share some roots- both are ancient ways of preserving meat, so it keeps its nutrition without going off- the end product is quite different. Biltong is a thicker and raw cut that retains a juicier, meatier profile, and the unique addition of vinegar and secret spices to the mix creates a more complex texture and flavor profile than salt-dried, cooked jerky.

Oddly, it’s more common for jerky to be smoked than biltong, and it often has added sugar in the recipe.

While Southern Africans love to bond over their favorite biltong flavors, don’t expect to find many jerky eaters if you visit.

American jerky is seen as dry, hard, salty, and a little bland next to the many exciting varieties of biltong.

There’s very little market for it on the continent- terms like ‘boot leather’ and ‘hard plastic’ are sometimes tossed around. Don’t worry, though- people will be keen to introduce you to the succulent taste of biltong, so you’ll soon have a new passion to enjoy together!

The secret’s in the spices.

So what makes biltong so special? Much of the meat destined to become biltong is marinated and lovingly prepared, and intricate spice blends lay at the heart of its delectable taste. Coriander and pepper are a staple in every biltong mix, but other than that, the sky’s the limit.

Add onion powder, brown sugar, and Worcester sauce for a smokier tang; garlic, bay, and lemon for something juicy; or fire up the chili and paprika for a ‘babalaas’ (hangover) blend that will shock your liver back to work.

With a little innovation, you can make a spice blend that’s uniquely yours, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Everyone has a recipe- and everyone thinks theirs is the best.

What meats do people use for biltong?

Beef is the most common meat used in biltong making because it’s abundant and tasty. Sirloin, fillet, topside, and silverside are used in the best biltongs, though many other cuts work fine. Game meats and venisons make delicious biltong, too, especially buck meat.

Kudu, gemsbok, eland, and wildebeest create biltongs rich in unique wild flavors.

In the dry semi-desert Karoo, ostrich biltong is king, with a unique and unmistakable taste.

Experiments in chicken biltong tend to earn you a few odd looks from traditionalists, but you can try anything that takes your fancy.

There’s even a variety of fish biltong, known as bokkoms, originating from the Western Cape, although it’s a bit of a-, pardon the pun- different kettle of fish altogether.

How healthy is biltong?

Biltong is a great snack on a diet, especially if you want to pump up your protein intake and keep carbs low. Because the meat is dehydrated, there’s about twice as much protein in 100g of biltong as you’d get in 100g of the source meat.

It does contain sodium, of course, so don’t binge on it too often, but it’s all lean meat and protein with no sugar- making it fantastic for diabetics. It’s also rich in creatine, zinc, B-12, and iron.

Pair it up with your favorite unsalted nuts; you have a nutritional powerhouse it’s tough to beat.

Don’t get too caught up in biltong as a health food, though, or you’ll miss out on some of the best biltong around.

There’s a reason South Africans love their ‘geel vet’ or ‘yellow fat’ biltong! It’s seen as some of the best and tastiest biltong in the world, and you must try it at least once.

True biltong connoisseurs look for a juicy fat profile (up to 30%) in their biltong, not a lean waistline!

A versatile food

Biltong isn’t just a snack for the road. Biltong and blue cheese soup is a delicacy everyone should try, and it’s commonly added to stews, success, salads, stuffed bread, and other dishes too. It even pairs beautifully with mango and avocado.

You’ll find it chipped, sliced, diced, and powdered wherever you go, as well as in classic stips and crunchier, drier stokkies (sticks).

South Africa loves her biltong, so don’t be surprised when you find biltong flavored..well, everything! You’ll find it celebrated everywhere, from crisps to cheese spread and even consommé, vape blends, and infused vodka.

The South African biltong industry booms at around 2.5 billion Rand ($180 million) per annum.

If you visit South Africa, you’ll be able to grab a bag of biltong at any supermarket or convenience store.

If you’re looking for gourmet options, head to a ‘biltong bar’ (a specialist shop) where you can sample different flavors and moisture/fat profiles, chat all-things-biltong with superfans and find something truly special to titillate your taste buds.

A biltong stall (or three) is inevitable at markets and most events. You’ll certainly find it infiltrating wine farms and ultra-high-class boutiques, although it’s considered a snack and not a delicacy!

So deeply is biltong ingrained in South African culture; you’ll also find biltong anywhere SA ex-pats are. In countries with large expat populations (The U.K., New Zealand, Australia, and India), biltong has even spread into mainstream popularity.

There’s a thriving export industry of genuine South African items, too, although EU regulations that curtail the import of non-EU meat items mean you can’t source South African-made biltong in EU countries.

The only country biltong isn’t widely found in is the United States, mainly due to the prevalence of beef jerky. All the same, it’s gained a lot of traction there in recent years, again with locally-made versions.

As even beloved South African comedian Trevor Noah has experienced, the U.S. doesn’t allow meat imports either. Remember, biltong enthusiasts- you never waste biltong!

…And an entertaining hobby

If you’re feeling brave, biltong is surprisingly easy to make. Traditionally it would be made in the cold months, especially in the ultra-dry South African Highveld.

This reduced the risk of spoilage and mold and allowed for thicker cuts that would yield better color, texture, and flavor.

Most recipes see the meat marinated in a vinegar bath, rubbed with salt and spices (and saltpeter, if you’re making wet biltong), the liquid poured off, and then the meat hung in a dryer.

This should be well-aired but not heated at all.

Historically, this would be a traditional air-drying rack or space on the rafters, although most people use a dehydrating biltong box today.

You can also buy food- and air dehydrators to speed the process up. You can make your own biltong box from scratch if you’re keen on DIY!

If you’re making biltong in a cold climate, you must carefully monitor conditions to avoid spoilage and may need a drying lamp or fan. While some modern recipes use heat, it’s generally looked down on as producing a weaker product.

It also means that nitrate must be added to better preserve the meat.

Large-scale commercial biltong is typically made in climate-controlled dry rooms and is monitored to stringent health and safety standards.

Rushed in a heat-assisted environment (40–70 °C/100–160 °F), meat can be cured for four hours and then hung for two more days. A traditional slow cure will take about four days, depending on your intended moisture level, and is widely seen as better, safer, and tastier.

You will find chimukuyu chinedovi, biltong, and peanut sauce dish in Zimbabwe. In Windhoek, Namibia, Okahandja, the biltong town with its own biltong festival, waits to welcome you. And in South Africa, the land of biltong waits to welcome your tastebuds home.

Whenever you snack on a piece of biltong, you’re celebrating a culture of friendship and a history of perseverance that’s hard to match anywhere in the world. Why not join the millions of global biltong fans, and try a tasty treat today?

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