African Processed Meats: West African Roots 9 April 2023 Eben van Tonder
Food is one of the most intimate cultural expressions, on par with religion. Methods of preparation and spices are pillars of the study of food and one of the oldest foods we consumed is meat. Europeans and Americans refer to one class of meat sausages as emulsion sausages. Examples include frankfurter-style sausages and mortadella luncheon meats. In South Africa russians, viennas and polony fall into this category. The origins of emulsion-style sausages are definitely not restricted to Europe. I traced the origins of this style of meats to antiquity when mortar and pestle grinding was used to create a meat paste and here in West Africa I encounter another example.
The two most important spices are salt and pepper. Salt fascinates me and I have a special section in the EarthwormExpress dedicated to its role in history, The Salt Bridge, celebrating its role in connecting societies and facilitating the transfer of culinary innovation since antiquity. In 2018 I did an article, Salt and the Ancient People of Southern Africa elucidating some of the important elements of the key role salt played in the lives of the ancient people of Southern Africa, particularly in relation to producing dried meat.
It is the link between dried meat, spices and grinding or pulverising meat that became a powerful telescope back into history when I had a fascinating meeting with three businessmen in Lagos, Hassan and his brother Hussaini Guruna and Saleh Buba, a business partner, friend and economist by training.
The Southern African Context
I first set the context from a Southern African perspective. Here, a long tradition exists of drying meat which started in antiquity past by the indigenous inhabitants predating the creation of Biltong by the Boer farmers (Saltpeter, Horse Sweat, and Biltong: The origins of our national food).
Meat was dried by hanging it in trees. Salt was indirectly used by rolling the strips of meat in ash before hanging it. The ash had the function of keeping the flies away but also added to the taste. William Ramwell sent me a comment earlier this year to my article on biltong I mentioned above, “I was working in the bush in Namibia in 1978 doing geological exploration. We were late and had to camp by the roadside. I had a team of 17 Ovambo tribesmen who proceeded to make a fire and slice up their meat into long, ragged strips which they then put on the wood fire. The ash-coated meat was absolutely delicious.” In a 2019 interview, I did with a guide at Echo Caves in the Mpumalanga region in South Africa whose memory through his father and grandfather goes back at least 170 years, told me that if the meat had a slight “off-taint”, they would roll it in the ash again before consuming it which would mask the unpleasant taste. I never forgot the statement which came back to me and was elucidated by William’s contribution that the ash indeed served a “spicing” role and positively contributed to the organoleptic characteristics of the product.
The dried meat was pulverised and used in soup dishes. The tradition is ancient and I found reports of ancient mortars and pestles, discovered in Southwest Asia dating back to approximately 35000 BC where it was applied to amongst other, meat. I examine this in The Origins of Polony.
The pulverised meat was often used with ground nuts. Elanor Muller, Marketing Manager at Transfrontier Parks and a student of culinary history provided me with the following detailed information regarding the practice of drying meat and then rehydrating it in a stew and its combination with ground nuts in Southern Africa. “The Zimbabwean Ndebele people have a traditional dish which they call Ewomileyo. Modern-day people add peanut butter to the dish. This is no doubt done in accordance with an old practice of adding nuts to the meat dish. It is also called Umhwabha or the Zulu name for it is Umqayiba. In Venda, it is done in two ways. Dried meat is placed on a braai or they grill it and stump it. It is then cooked, or dried meat is recooked and mixed with peanuts. All vegetables and meat, mixed with peanuts are called Dovhi.”
West Africa – Incubator of African Innovation and Technology
This week Hassan and his brother Hussaini Guruna and Saleh Buba visit us at our offices in Lagos. The first lesson they had for me related to descriptions of cattle. It is important for me to be able to make a clear distinction between cattle that are fat and healthy – ready for slaughter and gaunt, sick animals. Two Hausa words are used.
Gamba – the word used to describe gaunt cattle; and
Koshi – the word used to describe fat cattle (can also be referred to as Bujimi).
They then told me about the Yolo cattle market in Mubi. Cattle are driven in huge herds from Chad to the Northern Nigerian City of Mubi where cattle traders like the Guruna family, load them in trucks and transport them to Lagos where they are fattened and sold.
The cattle market in Mubi, photo from Northeast Reporters
The discussion quickly turned to dried meat. In the Hausa tradition salt and spices are used to make the dried meat, but never sugar. The local variety known as biltong in South Africa and Jerky in America is called Kilishi. A bit of heat is sometimes employed to speed up the drying process.
Kilishi is, however not the only product made from dehydrated meat. One such progression of the basic concept is Dambu Nama.
To make this, all fat and connective tissue is removed from the meat after which it is rinsed and cooked with bell peppers, stock, onions and salt to taste. The meat is cooked till it is soft. All the water is cooked off and if need be, add more water and cook till dry. Traditionally, a mortar and pestle were used to grind the meat down but these days chefs prefer using two forks to shred the meat. The role of mortar and pestle is the key link for me. The tradition is ancient!
Suya spice, pepper, ginger powder and stock are added. Mix and taste to ensure the spices are to satisfaction. Now, fry on medium heat in a bit of oil, pressing down on the meat with your spatchelor while stirring to ensure the meat remains fluffy. When the colour of the meat change to deep brown, it’s done and time to cool it down.
One of the other traditional ways that it is made is by adding groundnut cake. This piqued my interest as it connected to the Southern African inclusion of groundnuts into pulverised dried meat.
Groundnut cake is made as the byproduct of extracting oil from it, and yes, the process is also ancient and is still practised in households and small industries by Nigerian Northerners.
My mind goes back to the weeks and days I spend hiking the old indigenous ruins across the Johannesburg highveld area. I chronicled these experiences in The Stories of Salt. All we have left today are the ruins. Western colonisation destroyed the rich oral tradition of the indigenous tribes. It was always interesting to me that when I was amongst the ruins a calm came upon my mind and I knew that the truth about the rich history of these people would one day be told again. The height of their technology was in ways that Europeans did not perceive as valuable. For most of the inhabitants of the region (sadly, not all) technology was chiefly directed at communal living and not building vast empires. One of my projects is to rediscover this technology and particularly as it relates to meat and other foods.
It was with the greatest excitement that I learned the full details of the processing of dried meat and the way that groundnuts were added to meats. The ancestral spirit-guardians of the stone ruins of Southern Africa guided me to Nigeria and set an appointment with Hassan Guruna, Hussaini Guruna and Saleh Buba who would finally tell me what happened in the ancient mega-cities of Southern Africa, not by telling me what happened down South, but what is done here in West Africa where most of the ancestors of the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa hail from.
Oil Extraction from Groundnuts
The groundnuts are first roasted. In the roasting process, the nuts are stirred repeatedly to prevent burning. After roasting it is removed from the fire and cooled down. The red coating is now removed either by hand or by lightly stirring it in a mortar and pestle. The red coating is removed by blowing it away. The remaining groundnuts, now without the coating is grind into a paste in the mortar and pestle.
The container for roasting is now returned to the fire and the paste is transferred to it. You can add water. Stir the paste. Add more water and keep stirring to avoid burning the paste. Stir it till the oil starts coming out. Bring it down from the fire and allow it to cool. The oil separates out. Wrap the paste in a cloth sieve and press the oil out with a heavy stone by placing the stone on top of the paste.
After collecting the oil, let it stand in a container to settle down and clear oil is now separated from solid bits that made their way through the sieve. What remains is the oil, used for frying and the groundnut cake which can be used in many different ways, for several dishes. One of the ways is in combination with shredded and pulverised meat that was either dried in the sun or dried over a slow fire or both.
The ancient method of extracting the oil is beautifully done by Sunshine Resources and I used their video and description above. Credit goes to them and their excellent video is posted below.
Saleh gave me another way that oil extraction can be done without the use of direct heat. Apply a small amount of boiled salt water to the paste and keep turning it without applying direct heat. A pure oil will start coming out. The process is, however, described as “stressful.” The role of salt is interesting and will require further investigation.
I will return from West Africa, armed with a truckload of specific sets of technology to investigate and find evidence that they were practised. West Africa has always been one of the areas in the world with the greatest technological advances. The existence of hundreds of languages and different writing styles, completely unique in their structure is a testament to this. It opens an avenue to discover technology that disappeared and was never recorded, filling in cultural and heritage gaps that exist in the rich indigenous culture of the South.
It contributed to my own quest to discover the specifics of the enormous meat culture of Africa. I am here to produce sausages and hams and various meat delicacies, but I am not interested in the European, English and American style of food only. My compatriots and I are fascinated to bring to the mass market, African delicacies and processed meats.
Finally, as a meat scientist, it solidifies my view that meat recipes with meat extenders (soy, starch, flour, etc.) are by no way inferior to pure meat recipes and that it is not somehow a modern invention. The tradition is ancient and the delicacies delicious!
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