Namibia’s western border is the Atlantic Ocean. It has land borders with Zambia and Angola, as well as Botswana and South Africa. Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in 1990, a country that has obviously influenced its culture, and obviously cuisine. Before Namibia’s independence, the area was known as German South-West Africa. Indeed, Namibia became a German colony in 1884 and stayed under German rule until 1915, when South African forces defeated its military.
The name of Namibia is derived from the Namib Desert, which is considered to be the oldest desert in the world. The word Namib is of Nama origin. It means “vast place”.
Namibian cuisine mainly shows two different influences. First, the cuisine and techniques practiced by indigenous people such as the Himba, Damara, Herero and San. And second, the cuisine of the settlers that was introduced during the colonial period, mostly by the Germans, Afrikaner and British.
The cuisine of Namibia is very different and varied, as it hosts eleven different ethnic groups. It is therefore difficult to identify one national dish, although a number of the popular dishes are also very common in South Africa.
In is the case for potjiekos (pronounced “poi-key-kos”). Potjiekos, which can literally be translated to “small-pot food”, is a dish that is traditionally prepared outdoors. It is cooked in a round, cast iron, three-legged pot, called potjie (pronounced “poi-key”).
Potjiekos, typically includes game meat like venison, or poultry such as guinea fowl, as well as warthog, bushpig, rabbit, and hare, but it is also often prepared with lamb or chicken. The best meat to use for a good potjiekos needs to be sinewy and gelatinous. Potjiekos is also prepared with vegetables that can include a combination of carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, green beans, mushrooms or pumpkin, as well as starches like rice or potatoes. The dish is slow-cooked with Dutch-Malay spices, which makes South Africa and Namibia’s cuisine so distinctive.
The origins of potjiekos seem to date back to the Eighty Years war between the Dutch and the Spanish (1568-1648). During the siege of Leiden in 1574, food was very scarce, and people were forced to eat hutspot (hodgepodge) to survive, where everyone contributed the food they had available at home, into a large communal pot that was all cooked together. To this day, the pot dish is still cooked at the annual commemoration day of the Siege of Leyden in the Netherlands.
The Dutch brought this cooking technique to South Africa, when Dutch navigator and colonial administrator Jan Van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. At this time, the Dutch settlers used the famous three-legged pots to cook potjiekos, but also for baking breads.
As trade to Africa increased, many new spices and herbs brought by the Dutch East India Company became available and contributed to the evolution of potjiekos as a unique and distinct dish that did not resemble the original hutspot anymore.
The Voortrekkers (Afrikaans and Dutch for pioneers) also contributed to the spreading of potjiekos. The Voortrekkers were Boer pastoralists from the frontiers of the Cape Colony, that had been established by Jan Van Riebeeck. They migrated eastwards from the Cape Colony into the interior of modern South Africa during what is called the Great Trek, which started around 1835. This Great Trek was a movement of Dutch-speaking colonists searching for land where they could establish their own homeland, independent of British rule.
As those trekkers shot wild game, this kind of meat was added to the pot. In addition to the spices, they also often added alcohol for flavor – mostly beer, Old Brown Sherry or a dessert wine like Humbro. Nowadays, people sometimes add ginger ale, Coke, or even soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce to deepen the flavor.
It is important to note though, that before the arrival of the early settlers in the Cape, the Bantu people, some of whom migrated to South Africa and formed the Zulu clan in the early 1700s, had learned the use of the cast iron cooking pot from Arab traders and later from the Portuguese colonists.
There is a a lot of debate over what distinguishes a potjiekos from a stew. Indeed, a potjiekos should not be stirred. Shaken, but not stirred, as a famous character would say! The flavors of the various ingredients should mix as little as possible. This technique is similar to the one we used for kedjenou, this Ivorian stew where the ingredients are added in layers in an clay pot called “canari”.
In fact, you should be able to see as well as taste all the ingredients separately. Little liquid is used in the cooking of potjiekos, as the dish is mostly cooked by steaming and not boiling as is the case for a stew. It is therefore very important that the heat is very low and constant.
There has always been a lot of mystery around the three-legged cast iron pot, that was very popular amongst the witches and druids in the Middle Ages, as they used the pots for their rituals and ceremonies.
Also, the potjiekos brings to mind cannibals and the “missionary pots”. Indeed, this pot became an ideal cooking vessel to cook meat, whether animal or human!
In the African tribal cultures, these types of pots have become known as “putu” pots (corn meal pots). This explains why this pot is now used extensively in Africa by almost all cultures, and has survived the test of time.
Potjiekos is a robust and very healthy dish that is concentrated in flavors. But, like braai, the famous South African barbecue, is also an excuse for friendly and sociable occasions. Potjiekos is indeed an experience on its own.
Like most traditional stews, potjiekos definitely tastes better the next day. However, I made mine for a Friday night dinner, and we have no leftover for the next day!
- 3 lb lamb stew cubed
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 onions chopped
- 3 cups meat stock
- 1 cup red wine
- 1 lb small carrots
- 1 lb baby potatoes
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons curry powder
- 1 tablespoon turmeric
- ½ cup milk
- In a potjie pot or Dutch oven with hot oil, add the lamb, season with salt and pepper and cook on medium heat, until browned. Remove the meat and set aside.
- Add the onions to the pot and sauté until soft for about 8 minutes.
Return the meat to the pot, then add the wine and enough beef stock to cover the ingredients. Turn the heat to low and simmer covered for one hour.
- Add the carrots and potatoes and continue simmering for 30 minutes.
- Mix the sugar, curry powder and turmeric with the milk and stir into the stew.
- Bring back to boil and simmer for an additional 30 minutes.
- Serve with rice or mieliepap (maize porridge).