Potjies and the Secrets to Making the Best Potjiekos

Traditional 3 legged iron pot
3 legged iron pot taken during a wedding in Botswana, known as a potkje. Osasa Mosweu

No doubt you would have heard about the Dutch oven, a heavy based cast iron dish used for slow cooking. The South African version of this pot is a three legged, round bottomed pot known as a potjie which comes in a range of sizes. It symbolises big cook ups not only in South Africa, but across the Southern African region, where you are guaranteed a wedding, funeral or jolly social gathering is taking place. In Botswana potjies are regularly used to make seswaa at such events or out at the moraka, a family ranch or countryside retreat for Batswana.

In South Africa, a potjie is also known as a phutu pot, used for cooking large amounts of pap. Another thing a potjie is regularly used for, in what was traditionally an Afrikaaner practice, is a slow cooked stew known as potjiekos or simply called potjie, just like the pot. And today, I have no doubt that every South African loves potjiekos, especially during social gatherings around a campfire on a cool winter's night.

What I find is that the best potjies are made with meat that still has the bones in it. Just imagine what an oxtail or lamb shank potjie would be like! The bones contribute to the flavour and thickness of the potjie. At this point you may ask what is so special about potjies and how are they different to ordinary casseroles. The answer is in the cooking technique. To make an authentic potjie, you need to cook outside, over coals providing a gentle heat and the smoke contributing to the process. You could do this over a coal fired barbeque, or braai, as it is known in South Africa. But what if you live smack bang in the centre of London or New York and are craving a potjie in the middle of a snow storm? A little on the dramatic side, but there is an answer for this situation.

You can actually still make a potjie in your kitchen. The smoke and outside feel may be missing but that is not all that matters when cooking potjie. There is much more hidden in the cooking technique that will ensure you are actually making an authentic potjie. Firstly, ingredients are layered in the iron pot. Secondly, it is generally accepted that aside from stirring around the meat until browned in the initial stages of cooking a potjie, for the remainder of the cooking process, stirring is just not done. And finally, the source of the heat for cooking the potjie comes from the bottom of the pot as opposed to surrounding the pot with heat as if you were slow cooking a casserole inside an oven. So your stove top will do and your Dutch oven or casserole dish is the next best pot to use.

To sum things up, unlocking the secrets to making the best potjies lies in the ingredients used, with the best potjies consisting of meat on the bone. The next factors have to do with the cooking technique and all you have to remember is this: 1. Layer the ingredients, 2. No stirring and 3. Heat from the bottom up! Now, try it with whatever heavy based iron pot you have!