South Africans approach grilling with the kind of seriousness that's given to traditional barbecue in the American South. If you have room to gather friends and family around a grill, then hosting a braai falls somewhere between a religious observance, a patriotic duty and a civic obligation.
Naturally, with anything that important, you’ll find all kinds of opinions about how a braai should be conducted. Purists prefer to grill over wood, for example, rather than charcoal or gas. There’s also a degree of debate over which kinds of meat should be offered, but any braai worthy of the name must include boerewors.
The name translates literally as “farmer sausage,” and it’s a South African staple. It comes in a long spiral coil, as opposed to individual links. Americans generally liken it to a bratwurst, though the seasonings are slightly different – and it’s not exactly what you’d expect to find at a tailgate in Wisconsin. It’s still an all-meat fresh sausage, though, so it needs to be treated with similar care.
The most iconic way to cook boerewors is on the grill, but sausages can’t simply be blasted with heat like a steak or a burger patty. To retain the texture, with its delicate balance of fat and lean, you need to cook them gently.
In the case of boerwors, your best bet is to set up the grill with direct heat under one side, and then to cook the sausage on the side with no coals underneath. Close the lid to trap the heat, and cook your boerewors in that gentle indirect heat.
Rotate the sausage and flip it throughout its cooking time, so each edge is close to the hotter zone for a while, to make sure it’s evenly cooked. Toward the end of the cooking time, perhaps 20 to 25 minutes in, you can transfer it briefly to the hot side of the grill to brown and crisp the skin if you feel it’s necessary.
The coil of sausage is large, so you’ll need to handle it carefully with long tongs. If you have a metal pizza peel – the flat paddle used to slide pies into the oven – you can use that as a sort of jumbo turning spatula. Some cooks push two long skewers through the coil at right angles, to hold it together. You’ll lose some fat and juices through the skewer holes, but less than you would if you break a lose coil while trying to turn it.
If it’s not grilling weather, or if you’re just in the mood for a hearty, comfort-food kind of meal, there are plenty of boerewors stew recipes you can try. Cut the spiral link into meatball-sized portions, and saute them to render out some of the fat. Drain out any excess fat, and cook your onions and other aromatics in what’s left. Then return the sausage pieces to your pot along with your choice of vegetables.
Cover the mixture with water or broth, and let it simmer until the vegetables and sausage are tender and the flavors are thoroughly mingled. Thicken the stew, then taste it and adjust the seasonings as needed before serving.
Boerewors in Tomato Sauce
A variation on that theme that’s a classic in its own right is boerewors tomato stew served over corn mush. The corn mush, or "pap," is a white cornmeal porridge – the African equivalent of America's grits or Italy's soft polenta, and either of those is a suitable substitute. The combination of tomato gravy and soft corn mush is called "pap and sheba," and works just as well in African cuisine as it does in Italian cookery.
As with the regular stew, you’d start by cutting up the sausage and browning it in a pan, then adding spices and aromatics to the rendered-out fat. Add tomato puree or tomato paste to the mixture, and water if necessary; simmer it until the sausages are tender and the sauce is reasonably thick.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.