For thousands of years dried meat has been man’s travel ration of choice. All over the world, different cultures have different recipes and methods for preserving meat, from the drywors of South Africa to the Bakkwa of China. Smoked, dried, salted or cured; meat can be preserved in a number of ways, sometimes with the addition of spices, herbs or even dried fruits. The meat from pigs, cows, sheep, caribou, turkeys, horses, ostriches, llama and even camel are all cured in this way and enjoyed to this day.
History of Dried Meat
For nomadic and hunting societies, dried meat provided a nutritious, non-perishable and light-weight stable for men who had to be constantly on the move. Archaeological evidence shows that Neanderthals would dry mammoth meat for later consumption. Dried meat has played an important role in the survival of mankind and our dispersal across the planet. It has enabled us to travel long distances and survive through periods of drought or scarcity.
America and Jerky
The Incas would dry llama meat, which they called “Charqui” it is thought that this practice spread to the Native Peoples of North America who used the method to dry buffalo meat. The practice then spread to the European settlers and the name eventually became modified to jerky. Today jerky is mass produced for the American and overseas market, the most popular varieties are beef, pork and turkey. Llama Charqui remains popular in parts of South America.
South Africa and Biltong
Biltong (also known as drywors or droëwors) is a South African dried, spiced meat. Biltong and Jerky are the most popular modern forms of dried meat but biltong is thicker and more savoury than Jerky. Biltong was invented by the Dutch settlers who were migrating into the South African interior who required a fast method of preserving meat for their long journeys. Biltong could be preserved within as little as two days, although the full process took closer to two weeks.
In the East
In the east, traditional Indian dried meat is called Hunter’s Beef. Unusually part of the curing process involves the use of Potassium Nitrate as the beef is marinated. It is then baked in an oven. The name of this dish reflects its international historical appeal: as a staple food for hunters and nomads, though today it is a popular ingredient in Indian salads. In China the traditional dried meat dish is called Bakkwa or Rougan, which is a salty but also sweet and dried in long flat sheets. It is particularly popular during festive periods and is sometimes referred to as “Gold Coins” as it is customary to give Bakkwa as a gift in small round portions.
There are many traditional dried meats in Europe, particularly among the Italians. This popularity may have started as long ago as Roman times as the Romans army was said to march on its belly; it is believed that they were fed on a diet rich in pork. This meat was often salted or smoked to preserve it. We may have the Romans to that for Prosciutto, Salami and many other elements of Rustico cuisine.
Methods: Salting and Smoking
Salting slows the oxidation process and dehydrates micro-organisms, which prevents the growth of bacteria and prevents meat from going rancid. Sugar works in a similar way and is often added to salted meat to reduce the salty flavour. The most popular meat to use for this process is pork which is often cured and then glazed with syrup or honey.
When meat is smoked it is slowly cooked by the heat of the wood smoke. This seals the outside of the meat preventing bacteria from infecting it. Smoked meat may also be salted to help with its preservation, or if only smoked, it is often sliced thinly to speed up the drying process.
The Relevance Today
Dried meat is gaining in popularity today. Jerky and biltong are popular as snacking foods and are often marketed as a good choice for athletes and outdoor types. This should not be surprising considering their history as the stable food for hunters and travellers.
About our guest…
Jasmin Blunt is a freelance writer who has a keen interest in the food and cuisine of other cultures. If you are looking for a healthy, nutritious snack, she recommends trying the ever popular dry wors or jerky.