Meat! It’s what’s for dinner in a vast majority of Namibian homes.
When I first came to Namibia I stayed with a host family as part of the Peace Corps’ efforts to acclimate volunteers to their new environment.
My host family were transplanted farmer, they still own and operated a farm in southern Namibia, but choose to live further north and visit the farm from time to time.
They were also butchers. The day I arrived they had just received half a frozen cow, which was sitting, in parts, in their kitchen. For the following week their time was spend cutting up, packaging, freezing, and otherwise processing the cow. They got up early and worked until late in the evening. Often we wouldn’t have dinner until 10-11pm. And as you might imagine, the main course of every dinner was meat, in this case, beef.
It was a bit off putting at first for me. I wasn’t used to the amount of meat and how it was cooked and consumed. For instance, my American eating habits avoided large amounts of animal fat (except for bacon, which I’ll eat any time and anywhere), here that fat is relished. In fact, my host mother asked me several times why I would cut away the fat from my steak or chop.
Now that I’ve been in-country for 8 months I’ve had the opportunity to see some of the many ways meat is prepared and eaten. By far, the most popular way to cook meat is over hot coals. This is called a braai (pronounced ‘bry’), and while it may sound like our American barbecue, there are distinct differences.
Braai coals are created using local hardwoods. It takes 1-2 hours to get the wood reduce to coals suitable for cooking. The meat is prepared hours ahead of cooking. It is seasoned or marinated and then left to ‘age’ at room temperature. More on the meat in a bit.
Like barbecues, braais tend to be social gatherings, but unlike barbecues, that tend to occur on special occasions, braais happen on any occasions or for no reason at all other than to socialize.
I should mention here that there are different ways to braai. Around lunch and dinner time you can walk down many streets in every town and find a braai stand where you can order strips of seasoned beef to be cut up, cooked and served, usually with a type of salsa that I can’t seem to get enough of. More on the salsa in a bit.
Braais may also feature cast iron pots where meats and vegetables are cooked in whats called a ‘potjie’ (pronounced “po-tgeez”). The resulting savory stew is eaten with ‘pap’, a thick maize porridge that is eaten by hand. (Note that the three-legged pot is called a potjie, but the meal may also called potjies.)
My favorite type of braais are the social ones where a host or hosts provide a place and a braai pit and people come with whatever the want to share. The last few braais of this type I was asked just to bring whatever I wanted to drink (but you bring enough to share).
Social braais can have so much meat that it’s unlikely you’ll get to taste it all. You’ll see people’s plates stacked with steaks and chops of beef, mutton and game. You might find some pap and salad buried under the meat.
And every social braai has wors (pronounced “vorse”) (lengths of savory sausage). Wors is always cooked last, and when the wors is done, the eating starts.
The last braai I attended I wound up being the braai cook, which is somewhat of an honor. I’ve become adept at starting braai fires, which can be a bit of a chore in windy conditions. When I get back to the States I’ll be brining the braai idea with me, along with several recipes. One of which, I’m still perfecting, is for the salsa I mentioned earlier.
The basic salsa consists of finely diced onions and tomatoes combined with a savory-hot spice. To that I’ve added other ingredients resulting in a salsa so tasty I have Namibians asking me to make it for them. Some have suggested that I package it and sell it. I may just do that.
So, to experience true Namibian cuisine you have to go to a social braai. Bring your own bottle and come hungry.