Posted by: Tommy | February 17, 2011

Meat

As we finish our time in Southern Africa and reflect back on the last 2.5 months, one thing really stands out as universal over all of Southern Africa: meat.

We weren’t expecting great food in Africa – I’ve only ever heard Moroccan and Ethiopian food being exported to America – and we weren’t visiting either of those places.  And luckily we had low expectations, as we were not disappointed.  It’s not that the food was bad, it was just very consistently the same.  And the word that best described it would be “meat”.  So I’d like to share our favorite meat-related story, thought or anecdote from each country in Southern Africa we visited.

When we first arrived in Johannesburg and stayed with Johnson, he and Anita explained to us that South Africans eat a tremendous amount of meat.  When we’d visit the grocery store, they’d generally have avocado, bell peppers, tomato, lettuce and occasionally zucchini, eggplant and arugula (which they refer to as “rocket”).  And that would pretty much fill out the produce section.

When we did buy vegetables at the store, we would occasionally be shocked by the prices – not that the vegetables were expensive, but that they were more expensive than meat.  A package of bell peppers would routinely cost more than a similarly sized package of beef.  A package of chicken, enough for 2 meals each, would cost the same as 3 bell peppers – about $2.  (I don’t go to the store very often at home, and when I do I’m usually not buying meat and certainly not buying bell peppers, but Anna seemed shocked.)

While the range of vegetables readily available extended to pretty much those 8 items, the range of meat was much larger.  Beef, pork, lamb, chicken and fish were always available at stores – and you could usually find salami, pastrami, pepperoni and a wide range of other sandwich-type meats as you would in the States.  But you could also find ostrich, kudu, wildebeest, zebra, gemsbok, springbok – usually canned as a pate, but sometimes steaks as well.   That’s 14 different types of meat compared to 6 types of vegetable.

In Mozambique, for Christmas dinner, we went to a nice seafood place.  Anna and I ordered their large seafood platter for 2.  It came with prawns, lobster, calamari, fish and crab…and no vegetables.  In the U.S., you’d get three of those, plus salad, mashed potatoes and broccoli – not in Africa.  If you are given a side, 9 times out of 10 it’s french fries (it was here).  The only vegetable (potato is a starch, I’m told) that is readily available in restaurants in Mozambique is butternut squash soup.  And avocado – avocado is everywhere in Southern Africa.

Lime is a vegetable, right?

In Zambia, we encountered the same love of meat, though the meat-related thing we’ll remember most about Zambia is a story we heard from Mel and Ellie, the British teachers living in Namibia that we did the Gorge Swing with.  One of them, not sure which, is a vegetarian (not an easy thing in Africa).  They teach at a small school in a tiny town in northern Namibia, along the Angolan border.  One weekend, all the teachers at the school were invited to a local farm for a braai (African BBQ).  Upon arriving, Mel and Ellie perused the food options.  After a short search, the vegetarian asked the host where she could find the vegetables.  The woman smiled and took her to one area of the table…and offered her chicken or fish.  Ellie smiled and clarified her question – “the vegetables, like sides, potatoes, salad, beans?”  Yes, the woman, said “we have chicken and fish”.  And by the end of the BBQ, they knew it was true – the entire food options at this party included: chicken and fish, pork, lamb and beef steaks.  Not a single other vegetable. Obviously, we though we’d find Namibia to be interesting…but first, we’d be going to Botswana.

In Botswana, things were pretty much the same.  Our favorite meat encounter happened with Dave, the guy who rented us the mud-loving Land Cruiser for the Kalahari.  While Anna and Eva were at the store buying provisions for the trip, Tom Mendes de Costa and I were with Dave, going over the various features of the Land Cruiser and the gear we were getting with it.  And probably the oddest feature was the “meat-hiding compartment”.  Between Maun (our starting point) and the gate to the Kalahari is the Veterinary Fence.  The Veterinary Fence is literally a fence that cuts Botswana into sections, intended to control Mad Cow Disease.

I’m not sure exactly how it works, only that to get into and out of Botswana over land, you have to drive through a small trough of disinfectant.  You also have too get out of your car/bus and step on a small mat of disinfectant.  You also have to do this each time you cross a Veterinary Fence.  Additionally, and this is the reason for the meat-hiding compartment, you can’t transport meat across the fence and there are armed guards stationed at every gap in the fence, strictly to make sure you aren’t carrying any beef.

However, Africans love meat and there aren’t any stores between Maun and Kalahari, so Dave has a solution.  My absolute favorite part of this was Dave, trying to explain the meat compartment, says, “Are you taking any beef?” and before either of us can respond, answers his own question with “Of course you’re taking beef, you’re going to be gone for 2 days.”  As if life couldn’t continue for 2 days without beef.  He then shows us the super-secret compartment, built specially underneath the refrigerator, that can hide your beef.  It has a trap-door that you can’t see unless you know exactly where to look.  The lid is removable – you put your beef in the hole, put the secret lid on it, and then go through the fence.  Even when the guards search the truck, Dave’s never had a single client get their beef confiscated.

Of course, Tom and I were crushed when Anna and Eva had purchased no beef and we didn’t get to use the beef-hiding compartment.  We couldn’t bring ourselves to tell Dave.

We had high hopes for Namibia, meat-wise, based on the story of Mel and Ellie and it didn’t disappoint.  A phenomenon in Africa that I haven’t mentioned yet is biltong.  Biltong is the African counter to beef jerky.  They make it out of beef, ostrich, and sometimes the game animals I mentioned earlier.  It comes in many different flavors – chili, peppered, plain to name a few – and until Namibia we’d mostly seen it for sale in supermarkets.

But in Namibia, you mostly see it for sale in shopping malls.  In freestanding stores.  I can’t imagine a beef jerky store in a mall, much less 2 or 3 in a single mall.  But in Namibia, every mall has 2-3 biltong stores.  And every time we passed one (which is frequently – we were in probably 6 malls in the 7 days we visited Namibia) there was a line of people waiting to buy jerky.  People in the rest of Southern Africa really like biltong, but people in Namibia LOVE biltong.

A biltong store in Swakopmund

Completing our circle of Southern Africa, Anna and I arrived in Cape Town very much tired of meat and excited to begin our time in India, a largely-vegetarian country where its difficult to even find beef.  But before we could do that, we had to prove to ourselves one more time that we were out of our depth, meat-wise.

At the hostel in Swellendam, they provided a fire if you wanted to braai.  We decided that, since we’d spent 10 weeks in Africa without doing it, we should braai at least once before we moved on.  So we went to the store and perused the meat selection.  And we couldn’t get over the whole rack of lamb..for $4.  We weren’t sure that it was meant for braai-ing, so I asked a woman at the store.  She was very enthusiastic about it – said it would be delicious.  Sold!  We bought a pineapple and some zucchini (we weren’t trying to be that African) to go along with the lamb.  We took it back, put it on the grill….and had absolutely no idea what to do next.  My wife is an excellent cook and frequently can improvise in the poorly-equipped hostel kitchens, but she had no idea how to attack this giant rack of lamb.  Fortunately, a group of South Africans were expertly cooking vast quantities of sausage (known as boerwors) on the grill next to ours and they helped some.  But in the end, we were left with a mostly-cooked hunk of lamb meat that had rib bones sticking out of one side and the sternum (I think) completely encasing the other.  Anna ate the zucchini, I pulled out the rib bones with my hands and chewed on the giant chunks of lamb meat.  We both finished dinner very unsatisfied.  But hey, when in Rome…

This is cut from the cute part of the lamb. It's not the same rack of lamb, but it was also $4.

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Responses

  1. I guess the next time someone asks “Where’s the Beef?”, I can answer – “AFRICA”

  2. Wish we had those meat prices! Would have loved to see a picture of the finished braai! Guess the old saying “eat your vegetables” doesn’t apply in Africa — no?

  3. I love meat too so again, think I would like Africa. Anna what did you do to that rack of lamb that didn’t work.

  4. I’m playing catch-up with your blogs…away at the ranch. (I felt like I was camping out…no water for 1 1/2 days!)
    Knowing you guys I’m sure you tried ALL the different kinds of Biltong. Which one was your favorite? Anna, I can just picture all the rich colors & the delicious aromas in India! I LOVE these wonderfully descriptive blogs! They are such a gift. Take care & stay safe & healthy. My love to you both XOXOX Kita


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