Dried meat has been around for hundreds of years and its origins can be traced back to a number of different cultures around the world.
The history of beef jerky
Although the Ancient Egyptians are believed to have been the first civilization to dry meat as a means of preserving it, Central America and the Inca civilization lay claim to the earliest version of what we know today as beef jerky.
Jerky was first made by the Chechuan tribe – an indigenous people living in the mountainous regions of what is now called Peru – and because they needed a readily available protein source which was portable and which would last for months without spoiling, they learnt to make large quantities of preserved meat by smoking it over fire.
They generally used meat from llamas and alpacas and unlike the jerky of today, the meat was left on the bone.
The word ‘jerky’ is derived from the Chechuan word ‘Ch’arki’ which translates into the phrase ‘to burn meat’. Once Central America had been colonised by the Spaniards and they learned the traditional meat preservation techniques from the native tribes, the name evolved into ‘charqui’ which in turn became ‘jerky’.
Other native American tribes were also making their own versions of jerky using similar techniques – but using different meats. Bison, deer and elk were their preferred choices – and as the popularity of this convenient and tasty food grew and it became more widely used by hunters and explorers in north America, any type of animal – even geese and turkeys – were used for making jerky. The first recorded use of the word ‘jerky’ was in 1612 when it appeared on a map of Virginia drawn by the fabled adventurer, Captain John Smith as the note: ‘as drie as their jerkin beefe in the West Indies’.
Modern day beef jerky and biltong
Nowadays, jerky is made from thin strips of boneless meat that are dehydrated over heat. The strips are first marinated in a variety of mixes including savoury, spicy, sweet and chilli flavours and then quick-dried over heat to a chewy, tasty deliciousness.
The history of biltong
This tasty dried meat snack originated in the southern tip of Africa centuries ago and is now a firm favourite right around the world.
Let’s look at the story of how and why the early indigenous societies and European settlers in South Africa started making biltong all those years ago.
Food preservation was always an imperative for early civilizations. Their survival depended on it. That’s why the early indigenous people of South Africa like the Khoikhoi invented a way of curing and air-drying their meat so that it could be stored for extended periods without spoiling. This dried meat was also easily transportable, so it was an excellent source of protein and sustenance on their long hunting trips.
This traditional method of drying meat caught the attention of Dutch settlers who had arrived in the Cape in the 17th century. They also needed survival foods which were nutritious and durable when they set off on the Great Trek in their ox-drawn wagons away from British rule to forge new frontiers inland. These ‘Voortrekkers’ improved the curing process by adding their own blends of vinegar, salt and spices such as coriander and pepper to flavour and cure the thick strips of meat before hanging them out to dry.
And so the name ‘biltong’ came into being. It was originally derived from the Dutch words ‘bil’ and ‘tong’ which meant ‘meat or rump’ and ‘strip or tongue’ and is now a household word around the world. The age-old technique remains unchanged and beef is still the meat of choice – and while the traditional salt, vinegar and spice mix is the most popular by far, you can get biltong in a variety of innovative flavour combinations.
The history of droewors
Droewors, which is the Afrikaans word for ‘dry sausage’ is another traditional South African dried meat snack which has been around for 400-plus years.
Like biltong, droewors has its origins in the early days of European settlement in the Cape. It’s made by fast drying a thinner version of the traditional ‘boerewors’ sausage (another Afrikaans term which means ‘farmer’s sausage), with a few tweaks to the recipe to facilitate the drying process.
Coriander seed which had been introduced by the Dutch traders was (and still is) a signature flavour of this dried sausage, along with other spices like pepper and cloves. Unlike other types of dried sausage, droewors doesn’t have any curing agents. The early settlers found that the warm South African climate was ideal for quick drying these thin sausages and they often used pork or veal because these meats dried faster than beef and were less likely to spoil.
Good to know
Don’t you love foods that have a fascinating history? These meaty snacks have stood the test of time and their recipes and traditional methods remain largely unchanged. And if you don’t have the time or inclination to make biltong, jerky or droewors yourself, thankfully there are manufacturers who are able to produce large quantities of delicious quality products without compromising taste or texture.
Of course, there are some great new flavour innovations (chilli biltong anyone?), but the reason these centuries-old snacks are so popular is because they’re tasty, healthy, nutritious, convenient and easily transportable. The indigenous people and early settlers in Central America and South Africa knew that – and happily we do too! Visit DJays Gourmet and see why we have a reputation for Australia’s best biltong! Order yours online today and have it delivered to your door – anywhere in the country.