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A potjie is a cast iron pot with three legs and a tight lid used in cooking. A tightly sealing lid maintains the moisture and aromas of the spices and vegetables, which are placed in layers on top of the meat. The pot is placed over a fire of charcoal or wood coals, and ingredients are allowed to simmer for a period of three to six hours. Potjie is an Afrikaans word meaning "small pot." The name originated with Dutch explorers in interior South Africa during the colonial era.
The dish most often cooked in a potjie may be referred to as such, or as a potkjiekos, meaning "small pot food." Most chefs do not stir the ingredients, but let the flavors simmer together without disturbing them as they cook. Prior to serving, however, the contents are stirred to ensure even distribution of the meat.
The origins of this cooking tradition are slightly disputed. Some say that it began during the Siege of Leiden, when the community experienced food shortages and were forced to gather food scraps and cook them communally in a large pot. Others say that the first users of the potjie were Dutch pioneers in the mid-nineteenth century.
Voortrekkers, as they are called in Dutch, were searching for new land that could provide a better way of life for settlers. As they traveled, the tradition of the potjie is thought to have emerged. Wild game was shot along the way, and throughout the day was placed into the pot.
At the end of the day, the pot, holding the accumulated game was put on the fire. Any available spices and vegetables added to the character of the dish. In those days, the dish was constantly evolving. Instead of cleaning the entire contents of the pot each day, old bones were replaced with new meat, allowing the evolution of the flavors and spices to progress from day to day.
Modern potjie survives as a social dish giving a great deal of creative control to the chef. Virtually any type of meat can be used, similar to the days of the Dutch pioneers. Spices vary equally. The dish gets its social reputation because of the wide variety of ingredients used, and its lengthy cooking time, which allows the chef and others time to discuss the dish and how it should be prepared.
Potjie cook-offs are held in a number of countries. During these festivals, chefs come together and create a dish that will be judged by festival attendees. Recipes can be quite unique from one another, making for an interesting tasting experience. A common thread that unites them is the typical requirement that the dish must contain 90 percent meat.