I was at a party when I first encountered biltong. It was in a pretty little bowl next to the crudités and brie wheel, brownish slivers of dried meat with spices stuck to the edges. I was new to the country, so was curious about these chewy, salty morsels placed so proudly on the table.
"Is that a type of beef jerky?" I asked my friend, another American, as I pointed.
She started laughing.
"Oh, my goodness, don't ever say that to a South African," she exclaimed. Then she lowered her voice. "It's biltong. They take it very seriously."
After I had lived here awhile, I started to understand.
Biltong, you see, is much more than a food. It is history and nationalism and neighborhood pride; the quiet of safari game drives and the chaos of South Africa's cities; the memories of refrigeratorless villages and the nostalgia of long-ago braais, or barbecues. When South African expatriates dream of their sunny home, the salty, smoky taste of biltong creeps onto their tongues.
"Biltong is this unifying thing among South Africans," says Caroline McCann, owner of Braeside Meat Market in Johannesburg. "You go anywhere in the world and say, 'I've got biltong,' and you'll get 10 South Africans running toward you."
To equate it with a Slim Jim, then, is blasphemous.
The word "biltong" is a combination of the Afrikaans words bil (rump) and tong (tongue or strip). According to legend, the Voortrekkers of the mid-1800s – those Afrikaners who left farms in the British-controlled Cape Colony to find new land in Zulu-controlled areas – tied strips of meat on their ox carts as they made their way across the subcontinent. They cured those slabs with vinegar, abundant in the wine-producing Cape region.
But biltong is not just an Afrikaans food. Many black villages in rural South Africa make their own biltong – it is a way to keep meat fresh without refrigeration. In the townships, some people fry biltong and add it to the tomato dressing traditionally served over pap, the maize porridge that is South Africa's staple starch. In urban Johannesburg and Cape Town, it is served in the top restaurants. Today there is even biltong pâté and biltong cheese spread.
I have become increasingly familiar with biltong. It is sold in grocery stores and butcheries, at roadside stands and specialty shops. In Johannesburg's malls, there are even biltong stores next to trendy clothing stores.
I have ordered biltong in salads, where the dried meat was mixed with baby greens, roasted butternut squash, and goat cheese. I have tasted it in pastas with sun-dried tomatoes. I have eaten it plain on camping trips. When I went to Kruger National Park on safari, our game ranger served it in a bowl next to dried mangoes, placed on a crisp white tablecloth.
"Everywhere you go in South Africa, you'll find biltong on sale," Ms. McCann says.
Of course, she adds, hers is the best.
But what exactly is biltong, I ask her. And what makes it good? Or bad? Or chewy, soft, hard, or crisp?
McCann beams. She loves talking about biltong. Biltong can come from any sort of animal. Venison and ostrich are popular choices, but beef is the old faithful. Good butchers use the silverside cut, she says, which is part of the leg. They carefully trim it of fat and sinews, douse it with spices and vinegar, and then let it hang for four hours. Next, it's moved into a drying machine. It is never cooked, just "well pickled."
The meat stays in the dryer for two days in summer, one day in winter. Then it is hung up to air-dry for a bit longer in order to get to the proper moisture level – the longer it hangs, the drier it tastes.
Biltong comes in various states of chewy. Some is hard enough to snap; other pieces are as moist as a rare piece of meat.
"Every person has a different take on biltong," McCann says. "Personally, I like mine as if it were a medium steak."
Everyone in South Africa also has a favorite source for the dried meat. Almost all biltong is seasoned with some combination of brown vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, and coriander. But usually butchers put in "a little something extra," says McCann. And that something else – which accounts for the differences from source to source – tends to stay secret, she says.
At the R&M Butchery in Johannesburg's Dunkeld neighborhood, Johnny Van Loggerenbert lists the nonmeat ingredients for his shop's popular biltong as "pepper, salt, and coriander."
"Anything else?" I ask.
He just smiles.
Mr. Van Loggerenbert says he sells about 330 pounds of biltong a week. Sometimes he packages it for South Africans going to visit biltongless friends and family members abroad – a skill, since most foreign customs agents are not keen on uncooked African meat entering their countries. "We vacuum-pack it, and people put it in between their clothes," he explains.
Across the R&M meat counter, Gerry Arnold clutches a bag newly filled with beef biltong. He is visiting from Canada.
"I haven't tried it yet," he says. "They told me I must try it," he adds, gesturing at the South African business associates who brought him here.
McCann agrees: Every visitor to South Africa should taste this specialty.
"It's biltong," she says. "It's part of us."