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Biltong: much more than just a snack

Don't equate South Africa's biltong with beef jerky. Biltong is much more than just a food.

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I was at a party when I first encountered biltong. It was in a pretty little bowl next to the crudités and brie wheel, brownish slivers of dried meat with spices stuck to the edges. I was new to the country, so was curious about these chewy, salty morsels placed so proudly on the table.

"Is that a type of beef jerky?" I asked my friend, another American, as I pointed.

She started laughing.

"Oh, my goodness, don't ever say that to a South African," she exclaimed. Then she lowered her voice. "It's biltong. They take it very seriously."

After I had lived here awhile, I started to understand.

Biltong, you see, is much more than a food. It is history and nationalism and neighborhood pride; the quiet of safari game drives and the chaos of South Africa's cities; the memories of refrigeratorless villages and the nostalgia of long-ago braais, or barbecues. When South African expatriates dream of their sunny home, the salty, smoky taste of biltong creeps onto their tongues.

"Biltong is this unifying thing among South Africans," says Caroline McCann, owner of Braeside Meat Market in Johannesburg. "You go anywhere in the world and say, 'I've got biltong,' and you'll get 10 South Africans running toward you."

To equate it with a Slim Jim, then, is blasphemous.

The word "biltong" is a combination of the Afrikaans words bil (rump) and tong (tongue or strip). According to legend, the Voortrekkers of the mid-1800s – those Afrikaners who left farms in the British-controlled Cape Colony to find new land in Zulu-controlled areas – tied strips of meat on their ox carts as they made their way across the subcontinent. They cured those slabs with vinegar, abundant in the wine-producing Cape region.

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