Here’s a thought. The debate about whether Heritage Day in South Africa should be called Heritage Day or Braai Day is easily resolved. Let’s just call it National Braai Heritage Day, and all boxes are ticked, and sommer make Jan Braai president for a day while we’re about it. The man is clearly very clever, eminently sensible and straightforward, and has all sorts of commonsense ideas, all of which are fine qualities for a brief presidency. For all we know, he would be fireworks in the role, and a day is more than enough for somebody so organised to fix everything up.
Now the man, who is the force behind National Braai Day and who seems to greet any controversy about the day with a smile, a shrug and a quick fling of another chop on the braai, has brought out a book which is undoubtedly the best braai book ever published.
Even someone who has never seen a braai, never smelt a stukkie wors turning golden and succulent, or who has never eaten meat at all (there are such people, though not in Jan Braai’s immediate circle) will be able to put together a perfect braai for their non-vegetarian friends by just following his friendly advice.
Such as: “Gas is Afrikaans for a guest at your braai, not something you braai with.” I agree. It’s not really a good idea to braai your friends. Not even your vegetarian ones.
And: “Animals eat grass, leaves and vegetables all their lives and convert it to meat. Eating meat is like eating vitamin pills.” Brilliant, Jan Braai. This is the best argument yet for the eradication of vegetarianism once and for all.
Also: “A cow must only be killed once. Do not braai your steak until the flavour is dead.” And more in the same vein, and that’s just on page one. Interestingly, Jan Braai starts off with a chapter on how to braai the perfect steak, even before he offers his basic braaing tips such as “now before you start” and “other important things you need to know”.
The steak should be at room temperature and dry when it goes on to the coals, only being basted once it’s sealed; you need loads of “extremely” hot coals; anything between 5cm and 15cm from the coals is fine for your grid; steaks should be done medium rare (that’s it, no arguments will be brooked); “add salt whenever you want to”, take your steaks off after about seven minutes; turn meat with tongs, not a fork, and rest the meat after the braai before tucking in.
While Onze Jan claims that his book is not actually about National Braai Day, he does offer a rider: “But what I will say is that in National Braai Day we have a realistic opportunity to entrench and cement a national day of celebration for our country, within our lifetimes. I believe having a national day of celebration could play a significcant role in nation-building and social cohesion as the observance of our shared heritage can truly bind us together. In Africa, a fire is the traditional place of gathering. I urge you to get together with friends and family around a fire on September 24 every year to celebrate our heritage, share stories and pass on traditions.” Who can seriously argue with that?
After some history of braaing, tips about juiciness, tenderness, braaing times, measurements and safety issues, Onze Jan sets out the “ultimate braai kit”, which includes “six bricks”, sturdy triangles, leather welding gloves (this boytjie doesn’t mess around), one water pistol (for the discipline of flare-ups and maybe also for calming down your more boisterous guests), a headlamp and a knife sharpener.
And then, on to the recipes. Oh no, sorry, first, “stock your braai pantry” with items including spices, herbs, soy sauce, honey, Worcestershire sauce, chutney, brandy and apple juice.
Then, on to the recipes (after a page of tips about the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef, another about dry-aged and wet-aged steak), kicking off with rump steak with garlic butter, how to cook prime rib and rib-eye steak, braaing fillet steak, which he recommends braaing in pieces rather than the whole fillet, so that more of the flesh would be exposed to the coals, adding flavour.
Espetada, the Madeiran speciality, gets a look-in, as does the humble prego roll, and then it’s oxtail potjie before moving on to lamb, the heart of the South African braai for any braaier worth their braai salt. His advice: braai over hot coals for 8-12 minutes “until they reach that point between medium rare and medium where lamb tastes best”. On the money again. Braaing lamb rib, he says, “is exactly the opposite of braaing steak”. Gentle heat, slow process, braaing them for “an absolute minimum” of an hour.
Greek leg of lamb on the braai also has a turn, as does a lamb shank or lamb neck potjie. Then, the braai master’s ultimate challenge: how to spit a whole lamb, in painstaking detail.
Chicken aptly gets proper attention, from how to flatten a chicken and grill it on the coals to cooking individual chicken pieces, chicken burgers, and “chicken roasted in the man-oven” (to find out what that is, you’re going to have to buy the book and turn to page 197), and a chicken curry potjie.
Next up: boerewors (just two pages, surprisingly), and seafood. Braaing whole fish, open, closed, snoek, crayfish, peri-peri prawns, mussels, and paella.
Pork follows, from honey-glazed spare ribs to teriyaki neck chops, followed by recipes for sauces (monkeygland, mustard, brown beer sauce and more), and the lowdown on potjies, from maintenance to krummelpap.
Then our braai boy goes all girly on us with vegetable recipes, bread, salads (if you please), and braai desserts. Quite how you make ice-cream on the braai is not a recipe I am about to read, but braaied banana with caramelised pineapple makes sense, and the kids will love the marshmallows with Bar One sauce.
How something as convivial as sharing food, drink, stories and friendship around the braai could be a source of controversy is just madness. Let’s just drop the attitude, light the fire, and eat and drink to life in the most beautiful land on Earth.