If there is a South African food that most visitors to the country prefer above all other traditional foods it is biltong. When they visit South Africa they snatch it up at the many biltong outlets that proliferate in the malls, at roadside stands, and within supermarkets around the country.
American and British visitors are forced to eat biltong while they are in South Africa, aware that they will be stopped by customs authorities if they try to bring it back with them into their home countries unless they have a special permit. Some have been known to take biltong with them on the return flight, but to eat it all before they exit the plane at their home airport.
But, what is Beef Biltong? Read our latest guide to learn everything you need to know, all the differences with beef jerky and all other dried meats on the market.
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What is Beef Biltong?
Biltong is a type of dried and cured meat that is similar in nature and appearance to beef jerky, but is quite different in many ways. It originated hundreds of years ago in Southern Africa, particularly in South Africa, which continues to be the main source of the dried meat product. The name derives from Dutch, the language spoken by settlers from Holland in South Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is a combination of 'bil' which means buttock, and 'tong', which means tongue or strip.
The most popular variety is beef biltong, largely because it is the meat that is most widely and most readily available. Biltong also is made from game that is indigenous to Southern Africa, however. Second most popular to beef is ostrich biltong closely followed by biltong made from kudu, eland, springbok and wildebeest. Crocodile biltong also is occasionally available.
Biltong also is made from fish, in which case it is called bokkoms. Chicken biltong is available, but is not popular.
Biltong is prepared from meat that is cut into strips that are about an inch wide, a half-inch thick and five or six inches long. The pieces are dried and cured with spices.
Beef Biltong History & Origin
The history of biltong goes back hundreds of years to the days in which food was cured in brine or salt to be eaten on long ocean voyages spent on sailing ships. Without access to fresh food for as long as three months at sea, sailors and passengers prepared considerable quantities of dried meat which they stored on board to provide nutrition during the long trips at sea.
Europeans from Holland, Germany and France who settled in South Africa in the early 17th Century used vinegar as well as saltpetre (potassium nitrate) and coriander in the curing process. After being prepared with spices and vinegar, the meat was hung in the air for two weeks. The meat was dried outdoors during the colder winter months, which helped to minimize the build-up of mold and bacteria.
After the meat was dried, it was stored in cloth bags. The air circulation through the cloth helped further to prevent the build-up of mold.
They took biltong with them to eat on board the sailing ships that carried them to the southern part of the African continent.
South Africans continued to prepare and eat the dried meat after the long voyages. It became useful again when the Voortrekkers migrated north from the Cape Colony. At a time when the icebox and refrigerator had not been invented, biltong was the best form of durable food.
In time biltong became a traditional southern African food.
Today biltong is prepared in a similar way to that in which it was prepared 300 years ago, but with a few changes. It is usually dried indoors in a dryer rather than in the air, but sometimes it is dried in an electric oven to reduce the drying time to as short as four hours. Some traditionalists insist that oven-drying reduces the taste of meat that is dried more slowly. They add that it is less safe and suffers in quality. Thicker cuts, in particular, taste better when dried more slowly.
A variety of recipes that have been developed over the last couple of centuries call for different forms of preparation. In some cases the meat is marinated in a solution of vinegar before being flavored with spices. Ingredients used in the preparation of biltong today include chili peppers, paprika, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and onion powder in addition to the traditional spices and vinegar originally used.
Biltong is enjoyed in a variety of ways. Most popular are as a snack, on sandwiches in a finely ground form, and sometimes as an ingredient in other food, such as stews. Children often enjoy it instead of candy. Babies are given biltong on which they can chew as a teething aid. Cheese spreads and potato chips are flavored with biltong.
It is sold uncut in the form of sticks on which traditional biltong eaters chew. Increasingly, however, it is cut into pieces of various sizes, according to a buyer’s preference, or is sold in thin slices known as biltong chips. It is sold according to weight or by the amount of money that a buyer is willing to spend. In South Africa it is sold by the kilogram or by the value in South African rand.
Benefits of Beef Biltong
Biltong is seen as a healthy and safe food.
It is viewed as less likely than other foods to be contaminated by bacteria that can cause ailments such as ecoli and salmonella. Proponents argue that the use of potassiuim nitrate combined with vinegar in biltong destroys the bacteria that can cause botulism. Other spices used in biltong, such as coriander, pepper and cloves, have antimicrobial properties.
The drying process also helps to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi.
Differences between Beef Biltong vs Beef Jerky
Beef jerky is made from lean beef whereas beef biltong can be made from fatty or lean cuts. Biltong is cut into wide thick strips so that it is easier to hang to dry. Beef jerky is sliced into smaller pieces more suitable to be cooked.
Beef jerky is more likely to contain greater quantities of sugar, Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce.
Difference in Taste
Because of the way in which they are prepared, beef jerky and beef biltong taste different. The use of vinegar when beef biltong is prepared adds a flavor that is not present in beef jerky.
Difference in Texture
The texture of beef biltong is thicker and juicier, largely because the meat is prepared and dried in large strips unlike beef jerky, which relies on thinner and leaner cuts of beef.
Difference in Production Process
Although sliced beef biltong looks like beef jerky, its method of preparation and nutritional value are quite different. Jerky usually is smoked or roasted, whereas biltong is essentially raw uncooked meat. The drying process for beef biltong can last up to two weeks whereas beef jerky is prepared in hours.
Why Beef Biltong is Healthier than Beef Jerky
Biltong is valued as a food that is high in protein content and is low on carbs. Because the amount of biltong produced is half that of the original weight of the beef from which it is derived, the protein content is higher than the beef itself. Fibre content is also high.
It is also high in iron which is lacking in many diets around the world, as well as potassium, magnesium and the B vitamins.
A typical one-ounce serving of biltong contains 80 calories, one gram of carbohydrates, 16 grams of protein, and two grams of fat.
Although sugar is called for in some biltong recipes, it is used in small quantities. Biltong is therefore seen as an energy food that is good for weight control and one that can be safely eaten by diabetics.
Production is Growing
Beef biltong is becoming increasingly available in other countries, particularly Britain, Australia and the United States, where South African expats hungry for the traditional food are making their own biltong. It also is growing in popularity around the world.
If the trend continues, visitors to South Africa might no longer be rushing to the biltong stands when they visit the country as they will be able to enjoy it in their own countries, too.