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What I Miss About South Africa - Part II

Have you ever noticed how much you appreciate someone when you’re not able to see that person? They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it’s very much the same for people as for places, events, food and other things. It’s only once you leave familiar surroundings in life, you start looking forward to the next time you can spend time with someone you used to see often. Your heart pangs when that first special occasion – like a birthday or a family reunion – comes along which you won’t be able to be a part of. You scroll through Facebook and your mouth starts watering when someone posts a photo about the past weekend’s braai or a recipe from their grandmother’s cookbook. And when the idyllic photos of Table Mountain or an elephant at a waterhole start popping up on your Instagram, you force yourself to think happy thoughts. When you see a photo of the wide open horizon, you can imagine yourself sitting on top of a koppie in the Karoo, listening to the wind over the hills, feeling the rays of the sun on your skin, and then you realise it’s time to do something about your melancholy.

Something that could cheer up any forlorn South African, is a standard in our food culture: Potjiekos (literally translated – pot food). When i was a child, one of my favourite library books told the story of two war-weary soldiers who were travelling home and came to a village. Times were tough, and the villagers didn’t have much food, so they didn’t offer to share any with the soldiers, who were hungry as could be. So the soldiers asked them if they could have a big pot. They were going to prepare some stone soup. The villagers offered them a little pot, but the soldiers asked for the biggest pot in the town, as they were going to make enough for everyone in town. The villagers brought out a pot about the size of a small igloo, and the fun started. The soldiers built a huge fire and poured some water into the pot. Then each of them took a large stone and heaved it into the pot. The water started to boil, and the villagers stood around curiously.

“Is that all that you need to prepare stone soup?” asked one of the villagers.

“Well, some salt would enhance the flavour tremendously,” replied the one soldier.

The villager quickly ordered his son to rush home and bring some salt, and the youth obliged. The soldiers poured in a little, stirred, and tasted. They savoured it, looked at each other, winked and smiled. The villagers were very curious. They wanted to taste as well, but the soldiers said they’d have to wait until the soup was done. It wouldn’t be proper for them to serve their guests half-cooked food, would it? So they all waited around the pot again.

“Is that really all you need to prepare stone soup?” asked another member of the group.

“Well, some onions are always nice to add,” came the reply.

So the woman hurried away and returned with an apron filled with onions that she had stored in her attic. The soldiers deftly minced the onions and added it to the pot. They stirred it for a while, then tasted the soup. They savoured it, looked at each other, winked and smiled. The villagers could hardly contain their curiousity. Once again they were told to wait for the soup to be ready, as the soldiers wanted to serve the best possible soup to their guests.

And so it continued: one by one, as the soldiers were questioned about what would complete the soup, another ingredient was offered by the previously-wary villagers. Carrots, potatoes, beans, and eventually some beef were offered. One by one these ingredients were added to the soup. Each time the villagers were told that soon the soup would be ready. And eventually, it was. They were all amazed at how tasty it was. After all, the main ingredients were two stones. How could it be?

Of course this little story was originally told to children to instill values of hospitality and generosity in them, but it’s also a great definition of a good potjiekos recipe.

Potjiekos has a spectacular spectrum of varieties. Main dish potjies are served with beef, lamb, chicken, venison or even offal. Flavours range from curry to tomato and everything in between. Sometimes it’s hearty, sometimes creamy. Some only contain meat, others balance proteins with vegetables. There are dishes for starters, breads and even desserts. Whatever could be cooked on a stove or baked in an oven can be made in a potjie. If you crave a flavour, the potjie is always willing to oblige.

Of course, every single potjiekos recipe could be made in the kitchen, but because a potjie is meant to cook for hours outside, it’s the ideal excuse to invite some friends over for a relaxed afternoon of cooking, spinning philosophies about life, and simply catching up with each other. And this is where the secret to a great potjie lies: in the fellowship with your loved ones. Even if you have only stones to pot in your pot, you’ll have friendship to warm your home.

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