Potjiekos (pronounced poy-kee-kawse) is an Afrikaans word and literally translates as “small pot food”. In South Africa this is a traditional stew prepared outdoors in a cast iron, round bellied, three-legged pot over wood coals or charcoal. Potjiekos is uniquely South African and the preparation of the potjie and the selection of the ingredients, are very much an individual thing with every cook. The preparation may be different but the potjiekos is always at the center of family time or in the company of good friends, enjoyed by all South Africans irrespective of their heritage. 

Potjiekos A South African Tradition
Credit: Sudocream

A lamb potjie that we enjoyed on the weekend with family.

So What's Cooking?

Cooking a potjie is a uniquely South African tradition that is at the heart of social gatherings. Family and friends are invited for the feast and whilst the potjie is bubbling away, sip a drink, nibble on snacks and chat while the aromas leaving the pot are sure to make your mouth water. Potjiekos is a labor of love, the preparation of the potjie, the fire and the ingredients can take many hours. The preparation is started long before dinner time but once the potjie is on the fire, one can sit back and relax, catch up with friends and enjoy the memorable experience.

There are many different recipes for the potjie, you only need search for one but experts consider the best meat to use is stewing beef which becomes very tender when stewed for a long time. Other meat options are chicken, lamb, pork, ox, any game meat, even fish. Whatever your meat preference, one important method of cooking with the potjie is packing the food in layers. The meat is first of all browned with some cooking oil to seal in the flavor. It should be cooked almost right through and sautéed with onions, garlic, herbs and spices. Once this is done, a little red wine or a small amount of meat stock is added and stirred. That concludes the meat preparation.

Following the meat, layers of vegetables are put into the potjie depending on their cooking times. Potatoes and carrots which take the longest to cook are added first, then pumpkin, tomatoes and mushrooms are layered above that. Add warm water or stock to just under the vegetable layer, pop the lid on and do not stir. The potjie must now simmer on the hot coals for 2-3 hours, sometimes longer, until done. Just before serving the potjiekos, the stew is turned with a large spoon to bring the meat that is sitting at the bottom of the pot to the top, ready to be served. We normally have the stew on a bed of rice that has been cooked earlier.

Potjiekos meat being preparedCredit: Sudocream

Which Potjie?

Potjie size 2Credit: SudocreamWhen it comes to the pot size, a number 3 pot is the most popular for feeding an average size family of four to six. The pot number is the indication of its capacity, with number 3 holding 7.8 litres, and a size 25, the biggest, holding 70.5 litres. Potjie pots are also made in ¼ and ½ sizes, which are very small (barely over 1 litre for the ½ size). They are meant for one person and served typically at restaurants as a means of presenting a traditional South African potjiekos meal.[1] If you are looking to purchase a pot it is important to shop around, the prices as well as the quality vary considerably. Inspect each pot for any cracks and make sure the lid seals properly. There is a casting joint which should be ground out; good quality pots will have a very smooth inside surface.

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Preparing The Potjie

Once you have your pot it is vital to ‘cook in’ your pot to eliminate any iron taste and prevent black deposits sticking to your food. Some pots are sold pre-cured meaning that you only need to wipe the inside, grease it, and heat it up with oil before cooking in it.[2] As one cannot guarantee the condition for its first time use it is wise to prepare the pot properly by doing the following:

  1. Scour the inside surface of the pot and lid with sandpaper
  2. Wash the inside of the pot and lid with water.
  3. Grease the inside and outside surfaces of the pot and lid with pork fat.
  4. Fill the pot with leftover vegetable peels and water and cook with the lid on, over a slow burning fire for a few hours. The pot should simmer.
  5. Empty out the contents and dry the pot and lid with a clean cloth.
  6. Grease the pot and lid with cooking oil.
  7. Heat up the pot and lid over hot coals; avoid flames and remove from the heat when the oil starts to smoke.
  8. The potjie is now prepared for its first cook.

Cleaning And Maintenance

Once you have finished enjoying your potjiekos it is time to clean it. This can be done simply by filling it with warm water and letting it soak for a while then rinsing with warm water. Potjiekos enthusiasts prefer not to use a dishwashing liquid, as during your potjie’s use it will develop its own unique flavor. However a lot of South Africans do wash with soapy water to ensure the pot is clean. Afterwards dry the inside and outside with a cloth or paper towel and apply a thin layer of fat or cooking oil. The oil layer will prevent the pot from rusting and protect the inside until the next time it is used. It is important to properly maintain and clean your potjie after each use, the more it is used the smoother the inside surface will become. A well maintained potjie can give you a lifetime of service!

Setting Up The Firee

At the heart of your potjie is the fire that is to heat the pot to just the right temperature so that the pot simmers away gently. Wood or charcoal can be used as long as you are able to control the heat to the base of the pot. The fire is lit long before the vegetables are peeled and cut. Potjies are cooked over hot coals and not over flames as this may weaken the cast iron and eventually lead to cracking. The ideal way to control the heat and produce the hot coals for cooking with the potjie is to have two fires. One fire is burning wood or charcoal, preparing the hot coals for the second fire. The coals that are ready are carried or pushed to the fire under the potjie. This setup makes it much easier to keep the temperature constant and not too hot.

Making a potjie fire
Credit: Device to quickly get the coals ready for the braai on Flickr via Photopin.com CC 2.0

This is a special fire can that can very conveniently prepare hot coals.

The History Behind This Great South African Tradition

Potjiekos originated when the Dutch settlers that arrived in the Cape of Good Hope brought with them heavy cast iron cooking pots, which were hung in the kitchen hearth above a fire. However it was not until the Voortrekkers started to migrate into the interior of South Africa that the iron cooking pot evolved into the 3-legged round potbellied cast iron cooking pot we are familiar with today. The Potjie was the perfect cooking utensil and suited the migrant lifestyle of the Voortrekkers during the 17th and 18th centuries.

When the Voortrekkers were driving into the interior of South Africa during the Great Trek, their wagons would stop at the end of a long day and camp was made. A fire was built and the potjie placed over the fire. Any game, such as venison, guinea fowl, warthog, bush-pig, rabbit and hare which had been shot during the day, was prepared and the meat added to the pot along with vegetables when available. Sometimes livestock like mutton, goat or even old oxen that were used to pull the wagons were stewed in the potjie. The large bones were included to thicken the stew and old bones replaced while fresh meat was added to replace the meat that had been eaten. The next day, the potjie was hooked to the underside of the wagon while travelling and unhooked and placed on the next camp fire that evening.[3]

Are You Hungry Now?

Potjiekos has grown in popularity over the last three decades, in South Africa due to the rising cost of meat. As cheaper off-cuts of meat, often containing bones are more affordable, the potjiekos cooking process can turn these tougher meats into a delicious meal.  In recent years potjiekos has become a culinary sport, with South African cooks competing against each other for the title of SA’s best potjie. Needless to say, this style of cooking is simple, allows the host to entertain his guests, a fantastic way of cooking for large social gatherings and produces a unique South African flavor.