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Biltong is a dried meat product from South Africa. It is often compared to jerky, another type of preserved meat product, although biltong is dried, not smoked. The meat is a very popular product across Africa, and with people who have spent time in African nations. Biltong can be eaten plain, shredded on sandwiches and salads, and added to an assortment of other foods. Several companies make and export biltong, and it can also be made at home by cooks who are experienced at curing meats.
The word comes from Afrikaans, a language which reflects a fusion of Dutch and African culture in South Africa during the Colonial era. Bil in Afrikaans means “rump,” while tong means “tongue” or “strip.” The meat itself reflects a blending of African and Dutch culture, since the recipe incorporates techniques from both regions of the world. A similar type of dried meat, charki, is made in South America by Native Americans who learned the art of freeze drying to preserve their meats.
To make biltong, strips of meat such as beef, ostrich, or game are seasoned and then allowed to dry in the sun. The seasoning usually includes salt, pepper, saltpeter, and ground coriander, mixed in vinegar which helps to soften and sterilize the meat. As the meat dries, it contracts, concentrating the flavor. When cured properly, biltong has a very long shelf life, along with an intense flavor. When biltong is made with fish, it is called bokkoms.
Several stories exist to explain the origins of biltong. According to popular mythology, it was invented by tribesmen who kept wedges of meat underneath their saddles. The open air of the ride dried the meat, while the sweat of the horse seasoned it. This explanation is unlikely for several reasons, not least of which is that the meat probably would have gone rancid more often than it cured, but Africans undoubtedly had ways of preserving meat and game. The Dutch, in turn, has their own technique, called tassal, which they brought with them to Africa. With some refinement, tassal turned into biltong.
Successful biltong requires a warm dry environment with minimal humidity and a good breeze. The meat is usually covered or screened while it dries, to ensure that it does not become infested with insects. As the meat cures, it is periodically checked. The curing time for biltong can range from five to 14 days, depending on the size of the piece of meat and the level of cure desired. Lightly cured or “wet” biltong is a popular food now that refrigeration keeps the meat stable.