As I mentioned previously, a couple of weeks ago we enjoyed three marvellous and very divergent braais (BBQs) in the space of one weekend. Seeing as the weatherman has now assured us that summer is officially over in the UK (!!), I suspect that the memories of those halcyon days (and I do mean days, not weeks, not months!!) will have to sustain us until next year. But at least the tastes linger on… and those of you in warmer climes can still try out the recipes before packing away the barbecue for the season 😉
After our Friday night garden braai at home, we had an invitation on the Saturday night to attend a braai at a friend’s place in Primrose Hill. I have known Cecil forever and a day, but (to his mortification) reminded him that I have in fact only been to his house once before – and even that was in 1989!! Anyway, the occasion was the fact that he had done extensive remodelling to said flat by removing the pitched roof (he is on the top floor of a building) and replacing it with flat roof which has morphed into probably one of the most glamorous outdoor spaces I have ever been to in London. You reach the roof terrace via a narrow staircase next to the front door, and then you step out onto this huge expanse of decking and… you can see all of North London (or so it feels!) as well as some other bits and bobs like the London Eye, the Gherkin, the Palace of Westminster, the BBC tower… It’s just too marvellous.
The (exclusive) guest list turned out to comprise only fellow South Africans, so it came as no surprise that the star of the meal was a big plate of Cecil’s famous curried lamb sosaties. Now sosaties (say “suh-sar-tees”) are one of the many things that I really miss in the UK. Yes, you do get their cousins – kebabs – but not sosaties. And when I say kebab, I do NOT mean doner kebab, the stuff that you go and buy late at night after a lot of heavy drinking from the kebab shop on the corner!! For those of you who aren’t acquainted with the English culinary icon that is the kebab shop, this is usually a hole-in-the-wall establishment where many thin slices of lamb (or, I swear in some cases, donkey meat!) are compressed onto a 2ft long metal skewer and barbecued en masse on a vertical rotisserie. To serve, the meat is carved off the skewer (yielding many thin strips of meat, varying in tenderness according to the skill of the chef and the quality of the meat!) and served in a pita bread with salad and sauce. Yes, fellow South-Africans, if it sounds familiar it’s because back home we call this a schwarma! The first time I was taken to a kebab shop, I was expecting something like a shish kebab: grilled cubes of meat on skewer. BOY – was I surprised to find them selling schwarmas instead!!
So yes, you do get kebabs in this country – both of the doner and the shish variety (albeit the latter only in ethnic restaurants such as Efes). And earlier this summer when I dashed through Sainsbury’s to pick up some meat for an impromptu braai at home, my eye alighted on chicken kebabs, so I grabbed them and headed home. But oh, what a crushing disappointment! When it got to eating them and I bit into my first cube of chicken, I hit upon that awful, spongy consistency of reconstituted chicken (or, as I prefer to call it, “little itty bits of undesirable and unmentionable chicken flesh blasted off the bones with high power hydraulics and then squished into an amusing shape”). Blech. What’s wrong with cubes of chicken breast??? Why do we have to get turkey twizzlers on a stick?!? An experiment not to be repeated, however homseick I get.
Back in South Africa, on the other hand, every supermarket and butcher has an area of the meat counter set aside for sosaties – a dazzling array of flesh on sticks: chicken breast cubes, chicken thigh cubes, beef cubes, lamb cubes, pork cubes, ostrich cubes – you name it. And each is marinaded in a variety of sauces – sweet Cape Malay curry, lemon & herb, sweet ‘n sour, BBQ spice, yoghurt & garlic… take your pick. They sell like hotcakes because a) they are messy and fiddly to make yourself, so people tend to buy them ready-made; and b) they can be eaten directly off the fire, thus avoiding the need for washing up. Hurrah!
The word itself is interesting. People are always asking me about the Afrikaans language – how similar it is to Dutch etc etc – and about South African cooking (the influences, typical recipes, techniques etc), and one of the things that always surprises them is the huge influence of the Malay (modern day Indonesia) slaves that were brought to the Cape by the Dutch in the mid-1600s. As these slaves were largely engaged in cooking and kitchen duties, it is unsurprising that a number of wods relating to food were adopted from their language – words such as blatjang (chutney), piering (saucer), kastaiing (chestnut) – and sosatie (kebab). These words are unknown in Dutch and are a clear indication of the fabulous potpourri of languages that makes up modern Afrikaans.
But etymology aside, what of the actual recipe? A sosatie is quite distinct from a Turkish kebab or a Portuguese/Brazilian espetada, particularly for two reasons: the meat is marinaded in a sweet curry sauce before cooking; and the meat on the skewer is interspersed with vegetables and fruit. As to its origins, I turned to my favourite and most fascinating source, Hester Claassens’ doctoral thesis on the history of “Boerekos” (sadly, it is written in Afrikaans, but it is packed with well-researched information and well worth a browse if you can read Afrikaans, Flemish or Dutch).
The word “sosatie” might be related to the Indonesian satay, referring to a piece of meat cooked on a skewer. One theory is that “sosatie” is derived from “soos satay” (Dutch/Afrikaans for “like satay”). Another theory is that it is an adaptation of the Indonesan word sasati meaning minced meat, the argument being that sosaties are as soft as minced meat, hence the name came to be applied to them. But however the word originated from the Indonesian slaves’ vocabulary, it is unlikely that the origins of our modern sosatie recipe had much to do with Indonesian cooking. Even though satay is similar in that it involves cooking meat on a skewer, satay recipes do not contain curry spices, turmeric or sugar (all essential to proper sosaties) and are usually served with a chilli-based dipping sauce which is absent in the case of sosaties.
So a far more likely explanation is that this spicy, fruity dish is related more closely to the Persian kebab – the use of turmeric, saffron and fruit with meat particularly seem to pont to the cuisine of the Middle East rather than South-East Asia. And how, may you ask, did a Persian recipe find its way into traditional South African cooking? Up until the end of the 18th century, the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) was in the habit of banishing troublesome (often Chinese and Muslim) political leaders to the Cape of Good Hope, usually because they were trying to break the DEIC’s monopoly on trade. One of the most famous among the prisoners was Sheik Yusuf who was banished to the Cape in 1694 together with his family and retinue (49 people in total, including two wives, 12 children, two slaves, 12 imams and a number of friends) – he is generally credited as being the founder of the Muslim faith at the Cape. Sheik Yusuf and others like him belonged to the social upper classes in their countries of origin and were treated with respect at the Cape – Yusuf was given a farm at False Bay and was paid an allowance. More often than not, those cooking for the political exiles were the Indonesian slaves, so it would have been an easy mistake to make to assume that sosaties were part of their culinary heritage – but in fact it was more likely to have been on Middle-Eastern origin, brought by exiles missing the taste of home. So we are talking about a dish with an Indonesian name and Middle-Eastern origins, and that is now associated with Afrikaner cooking. No wonder they call us the rainbow nation…
The recipe looks a bit fiddly but let me assure you it is Well Worth The Trouble. If you can’t face the idea of cutting up your own leg of lamb, I’m sure a butcher can be persuaded to sell you lamb already chopped into goulash-sized chunks. The longer you marinde, the better – in fact, in a vintage South African recipe book of mine the recipe calls for days of marinading! The end product is both deliciously tender and addictively sweet yet spicy, and the apricots call to mind some sort of lamb tagine on a stick. What better way to satisfy your hunger for a little taste of the complicated country I call home.
CECIL’S LAMB SOSATIES (Serves 3-4)
500g boned leg of lamb, cut into 2.5cm cubes
75 g of mutton fat (optional – keeps meat moist and adds flavour at cooking stage)
3 tablespoons of smooth apricot jam
15 ml wine vinegar
2 large onions, both sliced into broad rings
50ml olive or cooking oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
125g dried apricots
One green pepper cut into approx 2.5cm squares
1 Tbsp curry powder (mild korma to hot madras – the choice is yours)
1 tsp turmeric
1 Tbsp brown sugar
2 crushed bay leaves
½ Tbsp salt
½ tsp of pepper
a knob of butter
Wooden or bamboo skewers
Heat the oil in a frying-pan and saute the onion rings (and green pepper blocks, if using) until very lightly cooked – make sure the onion rings remain intact. Drain them on absorbent paper.
Combine the apricot jam, vinegar, sugar, bay leaves, garlic, salt, pepper, turmeric and curry powder in a ceramic or glass bowl and add the onion rings (and green pepper, if using).
Add the meat and fat to the mixture and marinate for 24 hours in the fridge, stirring 2 or 3 times.
If the apricots are not soft, soak them in a little water until plump. You might also want to soak the skewers so that the exposed ends do not burn to charcoal during the cooking process!
When you are ready to cook, thread the cubes of meat, apricots, mutton fat and onion rings onto the skewers.
Pour the marinade into a saucepan, bring to the boil and keep warm to serve with the sosaties.
The sosaties should ideally be braaied (barbacued) over hot coals for about 10 minutes, turning frequently. Alternatively, you can grill them in the oven under a very hot grill, again turning frequently and basting as necessary.