Potjiekos has all of the things I like in a good stew: tender and rich meat, sauce that’s bursting with deep flavors, subtly-seasoned vegetables, and a good backstory. I’ve been watching a lot of Game of Thrones lately (well, once a week), and digging into the show’s theories and lore, so I’m most interested in the backstory part right now. Let’s dig in.
Cast-iron cooking was first popularized in Europe during the 1500s. During the Siege of Leiden, South Holland, in 1573-1574 (part of the Eighty Years’ War between the Netherlands and Spain), the local townspeople turned to communal hodgepodge cooking to survive – in small cast-iron pots, with any meat and vegetables they could find. This communal dish bore the name hutspot, and remains popular today.
Hutspot cooking was carried by Dutch explorers who arrived at the Cape of Good Hope (in present day Cape Town, South Africa) in 1652; over time, the dish started to incorporate new spices brought in from the Dutch East India Company, and took on the name Potjiekos (“small pot food”), using a small three-pronged cast-iron pot called a potjie pot, and cooked over an open fire.
Potjiekos eventually spread throughout South Africa when Voortrekkers (Dutch pioneers), dissatisfied with the then-British colonial administration of Cape Colony, migrated eastwards in 1837 into much of what makes greater South Africa today. Locals appreciated the practicality of potjie pots over their traditional clay pots, and they were integrated into several tribal cuisines – often to cook maize-based porridges such as putu or pap. It’s striking to see these medieval cauldrons take root in a place so far from their origin, and it’s a testament to the adaptability of humankind.
Today, Potjiekos remains a communal dish, cooked outdoors among friends (and a bottle of wine). If you are comfortable with cooking over an open fire, it’s definitely worth the extra effort. For everyone else, adding a bit of liquid smoke can replicate the experience while remaining in the kitchen. I even added Instant Pot instructions below the recipe, for good measure. This dish can be made with any meat, from lamb to chicken to fish, but I prefer the naturally rich flavor that comes from simmering oxtails.
Potjiekos is distinct from traditional stews in that the ingredients are not stirred together until right before serving; instead, the vegetables are layered over the meat and steamed, giving each ingredient its own distinct flavor. Additionally, you don’t want to add much liquid to the pot – just enough to cook the oxtails – since the vegetables will release plenty of liquid as they steam.
Potjiekos - South African Hodgepodge Stew (Gluten-free, Paleo, Primal, Whole30-friendly)
3-4 lbs oxtail
2 tsp kosher salt, more to taste
1 tsp black pepper, more to taste
2 tbsp ghee (or 1 tbsp butter + 1 tbsp olive oil)
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup chopped)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp tomato paste
3/4 cup medium-bodied red wine (South African pinot noir or Shiraz/Syrah preferred)
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
2 pinches ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground cardamom (or 1 whole green cardamom pod)
1/2 tsp hickory liquid smoke (optional if cooking over an open fire)
1 bay leaf
~1 cup chicken stock, more as needed
1 lb small yukon gold potatoes, cut into bite-sized chunks
2 carrots, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 zucchini, cut into bite sized chunks
3/4 lb brussels sprouts
1/2 head cauliflower (about 1 lb), broken into bite-sized pieces
1/2 lb white mushrooms, cut into bite sized chunks if needed
1/2 lb cherry or grape tomatoes
1. Pat the oxtails dry using paper towels, then season all over with the salt and pepper. In a dutch oven or deep skillet, warm the ghee over medium heat. Add the oxtails and brown until dark and crisp at the edges, about 3 minutes per side, in batches if needed to prevent overcrowding. Remove the oxtails and set aside, then add the onion to the dutch oven; saute until softened, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and tomato paste, and stir together until sizzling and aromatic, about 1 minute. Stir in the wine, coriander, cumin, paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, liquid smoke, and bay leaf; simmer to deglaze the pan, about 3 minutes, scraping up any cooked bits at the bottom of the dutch oven as you go.
2. Return the oxtails to the pot, then add enough chicken stock to reach about 3/4 of the way up the oxtails, about 1 cup. Bring to a simmer, then cover and reduce heat to low; simmer for 1 1/2 hours, stirring every once in a while to ensure the oxtails are well coated with the flavorful sauce.
3. After the oxtails have simmered for 1 1/2 hours, season the sauce with more salt and pepper to taste, then add the following vegetables in layers, in this order: potatoes, carrots, zucchini, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes without stirring, then add the mushrooms and cherry tomatoes; simmer for another 30 minutes.
4. Gently stir the pot to lightly coat the the vegetables, then distribute into bowls and serve.
** Instant Pot (electric pressure cooker instructions): follow Steps 1 & 2 using the “Saute” setting on the pressure cooker, then pressure-cook the oxtails using the “Meat” setting for 40 minutes. Allow to depressurize naturally, then follow Steps 3 & 4 using the “Slow Cooker” (high) setting to finish.
** To save time, be sure to measure out the spices into one small bowl, since you’ll be dumping them all into the pot at the same time.
** For those on the Whole30 plan, or avoiding alcohol, use 1/4 cup red wine vinegar plus 1/2 cup chicken stock in place of the red wine.
Note: In the year leading up to my new cookbook’s release, I will be regularly releasing these recipes to 1) maintain a continuing conversation with my readership and 2) give visitors to this site an opportunity to test and provide feedback before editing. For more information on this new approach, read my post here.