When you’re down on your luck and you’ve lost all your dreams there’s nothing like a campfire and a can of beans.
Tom Waits, Lucky Days
No beans for us
Ahhh, outdoor cooking. In South Africa we are lucky to have ample opportunity to enjoy some outdoor cooking. If it’s not raining, be sure that somewhere in your neighbourhood someone is getting ready to braai (barbeque). Oh, let’s be honest, even if it does rain, there are still people braaiing. And we don’t just like our braais. We also make potjiekos, like this Curry Chicken Potjie! It sounds quite exotic, but actually it just means making a stew-like meal in a cast iron pot on an open fire. South Africans and the Internet will tell you that it is not a stew and the ingredients are layered and not stirred. As with most traditional recipes, almost every person will have their own recipe and rules. I grew up with my dad and uncle being in charge of making potjiekos. They did stir their potjies and basically just made a hearty stew with some delicious wood fire flavours.
A very important thing to know about making potjiekos is that it is slow food at it’s best. From when you light the fire until you are serving your meal could easily take four or five hours. It is also not something you want to do in the hottest part of summer as the sun and fire will toast you to a crisp. It is the perfect activity for autumn or winter. You also need someone who is an expert fire maker. By this I don’t mean the guy who can make the biggest, hottest fire. Your ideal fire manager is someone who can make the fire hot enough to brown the meat and onions without burning it, but also keep the pot cooking on medium heat for a few hours without running out of coals.
Put in what you like
As far as ingredients go, you can basically add what you like. We made a Curry Chicken Potjie because we are eating very little red meat. You can go totally vegetarian or full-on meaty. Some people swear by using beef such as stewing beef or even oxtail. We have also made a delicious lamb potjie with basically the same method. The veggies you put in are also entirely up to you – anything from potato, butternut, sweet potato and carrots, to mushrooms, green beans or patty pan marrows. Of course, the part that is the most fun is flavouring the potjie. Most potjies use some tomato flavour as well as spices. You can decide to make it spicy as we did with a nice curry base, or just richly flavoured as my friend Paul does with a Moroccan Ras El Hanout mix. I don’t think two potjies will ever be the same, but I do know you will not be able to eat as much of it as you would want to!
Curry Chicken Potjie
- Cast iron pot that can be used on an open fire. I have a very large flat-bottomed pot, but feel free to adapt the recipe if your pot is smaller.
- 12 chicken thighs
- 45 ml oil for frying
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 15 ml ginger, finely chopped (optional)
- ½ green chilli, finely chopped (optional)
- 4 tbsp curry paste or curry powder (or use another type of flavouring of your choice)
- 1 t chilli powder (optional)
- 3 tbsp tomato puree
- 1 large tin whole peeled tomatoes (800g)
- 2 cups chicken stock, warm
- 500 g butternut chunks, sweet potato chunks, baby potatoes or a mix of these
- 3 large carrots, chopped into chunks
- 2 medium onions, quartered
- 250 g whole button mushrooms
- 6 rounds corn on the cob (you can cut up 2 cobs into 3 rounds each)
- 250 g green beans, cut in half
- salt & pepper to taste
- On a hot fire that still has a few flames, heat up a cast iron pot.
- Add oil and chicken pieces skin side down and brown the chicken pieces.
- Remove the chicken pieces from the pot and add the chopped onion. Stir the onions and fry until translucent and slightly browned.
- Add the garlic, ginger and fresh chilli and fry until fragrant. Be careful that the garlic does not burn.
- Add the curry paste and chilli powder and fry for another few minutes.
- Add the tin of whole tomatoes as well as the tomato paste and stir to break up the tomatoes.
- Add the chicken stock and return the chicken pieces to the pot.
- Cover with the lid and let simmer for at least 30 minutes on a low fire. There should be no need to peek.
- Open the pot after about 30 minutes and give it a careful stir. Add the vegetables starting with the potatoes and hard vegetables first and the quick-cooking veggies like mushrooms last.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste. At this point you should also make sure that there is enough moisture left in the pot. If the sauce level is below the bottom layer of veggies, add a bit of water until the hard veggies like potatoes are just covered. Replace the lid and leave for another 30 minutes.
- During this time you are allowed to look into the pot to check sauce levels and that the bottom is not burning. Do not stir much as that will break up the veggies.
- Once all your veggies are tender, you can leave the pot cooking without a lid to reduce the sauce a bit before serving. At this stage it would also be good to check the seasoning. A large pot holds quite a lot of food and you might have to add more salt. Depending on how much tomato you've added, you might also need to add a sweetener like sugar or chutney.
- Carefully remove the pot from the fire using oven gloves and put the pot on a stable heatproof surface. Serve the potjiekos on rice or other starch of your choice.
- If you are using red meat, you can increase the cooking time in point 8 to at least an hour. If you are using something like oxtail or lamb knuckles, cook for up to two hours, making sure there's always enough moisture in the pot and coals to keep the pot going.
- Depending on your choice of flavouring, you could add half a cup of cream or coconut cream to the potjie before letting the sauce reduce.
- If you have too much sauce and it is too watery you can thicken the sauce by making a cornstarch slurry with a heaped teasoon of cornstarch and half a cup of cold water. Add to the bubbling pot and stir a bit to disperse.
- If you are interested in some notes on how to manage the fire during the cooking of the pot, please let me know in the comments and I will get my potjie-partner (husband) to write up something.