1. Jul, 2017

Making Potjiekos the South African way

Today I’m going to share with you a very traditional South African method of making a meat and vegetable dish. I used to enjoy very much the meat flavors of this magic meal.

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".  ,' is directly translated as 'pot food.' The dish consists of a variety of ingredients, typically meat and vegetables, layered in a round cast-iron pot and placed on open coals. This style of cooking dates back to the 1500s and epitomizes South African cuisine, rivaled only by the ever-so-popular braai.

The origin of potjiekos

The Dutch hutspot came to life in the Netherlands during the Siege of Leiden in 1574 during the Eighty Years’ War. Hutspot, which is still cooked at the annual remembrance day of the Siege of Leiden, closely resembles potjiekos, as it is a layered mix of vegetables and often meat. The original hutspot recipe came from the cooked bits of vegetables left behind in pots by Spanish soldiers during the siege, which the hungry Leideners then ate. The dish became a symbol of their victory and has been adapted to modern times. When the Dutch settlers arrived in the Cape in 1652, their tradition of cooking in cast-iron pots came with them. These containers were ideal for the time, as they retain heat extremely well and as such food simmers for hours on end – resulting in tender roasts and stews. The pots were also perfect for storing meat until the next cook. 


Traditionally, the recipe includes meat, vegetables like carrots, cabbage, cauliflower or pumpkin, starches like rice or potatoes, all slow-cooked with Dutch-Malay spices, the distinctive spicing of South Africa's early culinary melting pot. Other common ingredients include fruits and flour-based products like pasta. Potjiekos originated with the Voortrekkers, evolving as a stew made of venison and vegetables (if available), cooked in the potjie. As trekkers (pioneers) shot wild game, it was added to the pot. The large bones were included to thicken the stew. Each day when the wagons stopped, the pot was placed over a fire to simmer. New bones replaced old and fresh meat replaced meat eaten. Game included venison, poultry such as guinea fowl, warthog, bushpig, rabbit, and hare. Among the African tribal cultures these pots became known as “phutu” pots. The black cast-iron potjie has survived the test of time and is used extensively in Africa by almost all cultures. With the advent of electricity, the potjie was all but forgotten in South Africa, but some 30 years ago it enjoyed a huge revival, and today is as valued a cooking utensil as the pressure cooker and microwave oven.

Potjiekos is fun food to cook and eat and needs only one’s imagination when it comes to selecting the ingredients. Once you have the right pot and have made a fire, brown the meat and onions, add a little stock and seasonings, and simmer slowly until tender. Add remaining vegetables and continue to simmer until done. The best meat cuts to use are the sinewy, economical cuts which become tender and gelatinous when simmered for a long time and develop a strong meaty flavor. The following cuts are suitable for potjiekos.

Beef: Neck, shin, brisket, flat rib, short rib, thin flank, bolo, chuck, topside, silverside, thick flank and oxtail.

Lamb and Mutton: Neck, shank, flank, breast, thick rib, offal such as trotters and tripe, and the cleaned head.

Pork: Shank, trotters, head, thick rib and belly.

Other meat such as venison and game birds make ideal potjiekos. Chicken and fish can also be used, but will require less cooking time.

The Pot; Cast iron cookware, including the potjie, is favoured over modern pans because of its natural nonstick qualities and ability to withstand high temperatures without warping. Potjie pots are available from size ¼ (0,7 litres) to size 30 (95 litres). A size  3 pot will serve four to six people. You can buy a smaller pot for your rice, pap or side vegetables, and a flat-bottomed one for your breads. When buying your potjie inspect it for any cracks and ensure the lid seals properly. Most potjies are bought ready cured these days. A cured or seasoned potjie is reasonably smooth on both the outside and inside and you need only give it a good scrub before you use it. An un-cured pot is usually dark grey and quite rough on the inside. These have to be cured to remove the possibility of an iron taste or black deposits in your food. There are various theories on “seasoning” your pot before use. Below are the most common ways:

1.Scour the inside of the pot thoroughly using sandpaper. Wash with warm soapy water, rinse, dry, and then grease both the inside and outside with pork fat. Fill the pot to the brim with un-wanted pork, e.g. trotters, but be sure it contains fat, and leftover vegetables such as potatoes, and/or vegetable peels. Fill to the brim with water, place the lid on tightly and cook over a low fire (or gas burner) for three to four hours, or longer, topping up with water so it is always full. Once cooled, discard the food, wash with dishwashing liquid and water and rinse well. Then rub the inside, which will be smooth, and the lid with cooking oil and store.

2.Simple seasoning involves applying a coating of cooking oil and salt to the surface of the cast iron pot and heating it in a hot oven for several minutes. After cooling, the oil and salt should be wiped out with a clean paper towel or kitchen cloth. This seasoning process forms a natural nonstick coating and fills in any crevices formed during the casting process.

3.Fill the pot with water and about 100 ml of salt. Bring the water to the boil, and then simmer for about three hours (over a gas burner if you have one as it’s easier to control the heat). Discard the water and rinse and dry the pot. Rub the pot generously with oil and salt. Then heat the pot once again until very hot. Allow the pot to cool and rinse well. To store the pot, rub the inside with oil and stuff a newspaper or paper towelling in it to absorb moisture and prevent rust, and keep it in a dry place.

4.Some people like to make a wood fire in a new pot and burn it for a couple of hours.

Making Potjiekos:

A potjie is a traditionally layered dish, consisting of game, lamb, beef such as oxtail, chuck, offal, pork and pork ribs, fish and shellfish, poultry, including ostrich, game birds, and vegetables. The cheaper, tougher cuts of meat are perfect as the slow cooking will render them tender and delicious, with lots of flavour. The fire is key to cooking a potjie and the heat has to be just right to simmer the contents slowly over a number of hours. The best way to achieve this is to have two charcoal fires (charcoal is easier to control than wood), one under the pot consisting of glowing coals, and another to the side that is regularly fed with new charcoal. This ensures a constant temperature and prevents the potjie cooking too fast or from burning. Have enough charcoal on hand for up to four hours, depending on whether you’re making a beef potjie that takes longer to cook than, for instance, a vegetable potjie. You can also buy an inexpensive, simple “coalmaker” at your local hardware shop. Your fire should be a “cool” fire, that is made with just enough coals to keep the potjie bubbling softly at a steady pace.

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.

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.) 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. )  

Is used in this "potjie"

  • 50 ml cooking oil

  • 1 large chopped onion.

  • Salt & pepper to taste

  • 250g ripe tomatoes’

  • 250g carrots

  • 250 g mushrooms

  • 250g cauliflower

  • 600g beef, diced

  • Assortment of herbs (rosemary , parsley , cilantro, dill)   

  • 6 potatoes (cut in quarters) or 300g of tube pasta

  • 450 - 550 ml of sauce ( I used beef stock made from bones and bits of meat and 100ml of red wine)

 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.

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 pointers but 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. 


The 1st layer is the meat. Add 50ml olive oil to the "potjie" and heat it up to the point where it will fry onions and mushrooms, use one chopped onion and 250 grams of 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. 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 wooden spoon, to move vegetable pieces around the inside of the "potjie" to get an even distribution. 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.

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 beef stock previously made from bones and bits of meat and red wine. 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. It’s all up to you. 

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 wood or coal fire you must 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.