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An idiot’s guide to the South African braai

Lamb chops braaied on hot coals, with lemon, thyme and oregano

The silliest thing about a braai is the moment when the man with the beer boep and the silly grin cracks open a can of beer and pours it over the flames, while the guests suck in a breath and let out the deep sigh of those who know their dinner is going to be late. And possibly wet.

Beer is great in a marinade, if you don’t use too much. Yes, I used to do the same thing. I just thought it was what you did, because I’d seen so many other okes do it. Then one day I put my head back on and thought, no, it can’t be right, because it doesn’t make sense to put something wet on something which you want to burn. Brandy I could understand, to a point. Brandy will flame. Beer is just … wet.

The moment that the braaier-in-chief reckons beer is called for always immediately follows his first “oh f***” moment, when he flings the meat on the grid, stands back with his arms folded over his boep and puts the silly grin on. Just then, it gets wiped right off when the entire braai erupts in fierce flames. That’s when he concludes that the beer moment has arrived, and out comes the beer and over it goes. Extinguishing a good deal of the flames. Which he had carefully built up. Because he needed them.

Seriously, there’s only one thing we should be doing when that happens – take the meat off the braai, bru. Just remove it and put it to the side. The “oh f***” moment also occurs about five minutes after you’ve put your marinated chicken portions on the grid. They heat to a certain point, which releases the fats, and down they pour onto the coals, bursting into flame.

There’s only one thing a good braaier will do when this happens to chicken on the braai. Leave it right there, but turn the portions every few seconds so that the skin doesn’t blister or blacken. Within minutes, the fat will burn off and the coals will cool a fraction.

This intense heat is great for chicken, which any braai guest knows is more often pink near the bone than not. That’s because it’s generally braaied on coals that aren’t hot enough, or too far away from the hot coals, or not for long enough. Or because the braaier-in-chief pours his beer on it. And on the formerly hot coals. Or (mostly) because it’s taken off too soon. Chicken needs 30 minutes of cooking over hot coals, with very frequent turning.

Learn to love the flames, guys. I did. Now, when the flames erupt in my braai, I leave them alone while turning or moving whatever’s cooking above them. You can move them to the side, this way or that, even remove some of the meat altogether to a covered pot on the side of the braai. Just drink the bloody beer and wait.

Or eat some of the meat (if it’s cooked, Daisy). This is known as the Braaier’s Prerogative. We chaps all know that there’s a certain piece of meat in there that was destined for the braaier-in-chief. Not everyone can tell the difference. There’s just something about THAT chop that is different, that is special. Braaier’s tjoppie. None of the others will do. It has to be THAT one. Or THAT particular part of the roll of boerewors that’s just perfectly, moistly right.

And that’s the trick with boerewors. Don’t overcook it. Never let it dry out. The outside must be richly golden brown but the inside must be drippingly juicy and just off done. And there is only one way that anyone can be entirely sure that the wors is done just right. And that is for the braaier-in-chief to gaze upon it with furrowed brow, cut off a piece from exactly the right part of the curl of boeries, put it to his mouth, and put on a silly grin and gaze into a far distance that only he can see as he savours boerewors perfection. A place where tjoppies grow on trees, and boerewors comes with a free beer. He will then sigh, smile, take a great slug of beer, burp, and allow the rest of the guests to have some wors.

Yellowtail with streaky bacon

And fish. The first thing you need to know about cooking fish on the braai is that the bladdy grid must be oiled. This is something the braaier-in-chief will have learnt very well the first time he cooked a whole fish on the grid back in 1983. He prepared his whole snoek or yellowtail, put it lovingly on the grid, cooked one side and then the other, and then took it off, and found that everything was stuck to the grid, irretrievably and frustratingly, while his guests sighed consolingly. He would never make that mistake again.

What he now knows to do is to thoroughly oil (or butter) both the grid and the fish. For one of my favourite braaied dishes, which I first did from a recipe by Ina Paarman many years ago, you fillet and butterfly a whole yellowtail, oil the skin side all over, and brush the flesh side all over with melted butter and lemon juice, then season. Cover the entire fish on the flesh side with rashers of overlapping streaky bacon. Cook in a hinged (oiled) grid over hot coals, first on the bacon side for 10 minutes, then turn and cook the skin side for five. During this second phase, the bacon juices will ooze into the fish’s flesh.

And chops. It’s so easy to overcook chops – they take less time than almost any braaier thinks they do. They need superhot coals, they need to singe nicely on the fatty side and the inner heart of the meat needs to be pink. If the coals are hot enough, 10 to 15 minutes should do it, then let them rest in a covered pot.

All of this, and much more sensible information about how (and how not) to braai efficiently and successfully, slowly becomes apparent to the braaier-in-chef over many years and an excessive number of braais. It is not something that can be learnt quickly or easily. There is no crash course in the art of braaing. It is an osmotic thing, a thing of much trial and many errors. There will be burnt fingers, singed arm hairs and smoke-tinged lungs aplenty before he has earned the right to smile that condescending smile when someone approaches the braai and dares to suggest that they might know how to do things better. They don’t. End of story.

First published in Weekend Argus 2011

2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Ladas Hylen says:

    Tony,
    I am here in Thailand and craving some biltong. The buffalo here are big and fat – they only eat all day and are put into fights at the weekend for the tourists. Hopefully I will be able to find some nice big chunks of buffalo meat.
    Have you got any sure fire recipe for making biltong? Not too salty – like the game biltong they sell in the Garden Centre. The little biltong shop on the ground floor.
    Much appreciated !
    Like your site – great !
    x

  2. tonyjackman says:

    I’ll look into that for a column … I have a friend who cures silverside in vinegar and coriander seeds.

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