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Biltong is a form of dried, cured meat that originated in South Africa. Various types of meat are used to produce it, ranging from beef and game meats to fillets of ostrich from commercial farms. It is typically made from raw fillets of meat cut into strips following the grain of the muscle, or flat pieces sliced across the grain. It is similar to beef jerky in that they are both spiced, dried meats, however the typical ingredients, taste and production processes differ.
Meat preservation as a survival technique dates back to ancient times. Indigenous peoples of Southern Africa, such as the Khoikhoi, preserved meat by slicing it into strips, curing it with salt, and hanging it up to dry. European seafarers preserved meat for their long journeys by curing meat in salt or brine. European settlers (Dutch, German, French) who arrived in southern Africa in the early 17th century used vinegar in the curing process, as well as saltpetre (potassium nitrate). The potassium nitrate in saltpeter kills Clostridium botulinum, the deadly bacterium that causes botulism  while the acidity of the vinegar inhibits its growth. According to the World Health Organisation, C. botulinum will not grow in acidic conditions (pH less than 4.6), therefore the toxin will not be formed in acidic foods. The antimicrobial properties of certain spices have also been drawn upon since ancient times. The spices introduced to biltong by the Dutch include pepper, coriander, and cloves. Recently, a research group at the University of Beira Interior in Portugal tested the antimicrobial properties of coriander oil (coriander being one of the main spices in the most basic of biltong recipes) against 12 bacterial strains, and found that 10 of the 12 strains of bacteria were killed with a relatively mild concentration of coriander oil (1.6%). In the two strains that were not effectively killed, Bacillus cereus and Enterococcus faecalis, the coriander oil reduced their growth significantly.
The need for food preservation in the new colony was pressing. Building up herds of livestock took a long time, but with game in abundance in South Africa, traditional methods were called upon to preserve the meat of large African animals such as the eland in a warm climate. Iceboxes and refrigerators had not been invented yet. Biltong as it is today evolved from the dried meat carried by the wagon-travelling Voortrekkers, who needed stocks of durable food as they migrated from the Cape Colony north and north-eastward (away from British rule) into the interior of Southern Africa during the Great Trek. The meat was preserved and hung to be dried for a fortnight during the colder winter, with the cold temperatures aiding to further inhibit bacterial and fungal growth. After suitably dried, the biltong was ready for packing in cloth bags, which allow air circulation to prevent mould.
Prior to the introduction of refrigeration, the curing process was used to preserve all kinds of meat in South Africa. However, biltong is most commonly made today from beef, primarily because of its widespread availability and lower cost relative to game. For the finest cuts, fillet, sirloin, or steaks cut from the hip such as topside or silverside are used. Other cuts can be used, but are not as high in quality.
Biltong can also be made from:
- Chicken, simply referred to as chicken biltong
- Fish in this case, known as bokkoms (shark biltong can also be found in South Africa).Bokkoms should not be confused with other cured fish such as dried angelfish and dried snoek.
- Game such as kudu, springbok and wildebeest
- Ostrich meat (bright red, often resembling game)
Traditionally biltong was only made during the cold winter months when the risk of bacterial growth and mould would be at a minimum. Some recipes require the meat to be marinated in a vinegar solution (grape vinegar is traditional but balsamic and cider also work very well) for a few hours, then the vinegar is poured off before the meat is flavoured with salt and spices. The spice mix is sprinkled liberally over the meat and rubbed in. Saltpetre is optional and can be added as an extra preservative (necessary only for wet biltong that is not going to be frozen). The meat should then be left for a further few hours (or refrigerated overnight) and any excess liquid poured off before the meat is hung in the dryer.
Other recipes, that were handed down from generation to generation, require the biltong to be left overnight in the vinegar, salt and spice solution (between 12 and 24 hours). The spice mix traditionally consists of equal amounts of: rock salt, whole coriander slightly roasted and roughly ground, black pepper and brown sugar. The vinegar serves as a primary inhibitor of Clostridium botulinum bacteria according to WHO (World Health Organisation). While the salt, coriander, pepper and cloves all have antimicrobial properties.
Traditionally biltong was made during the cold winters of the South African Highveld for best results. The cold, dry air typically dried out the biltong much more effectively, and in the best possible food safety environment. Mould and bacterial risk are at a natural minimum, and thicker biltong cuts can be hung to dry slowly for a richer texture, fuller flavor and dark colour. Heat has only been introduced into the process in recent years, and traditional biltong makers still stand by the fact that heat makes for an inferior end result. Due to increased risk of bacterial and fungal growth, the heated method such as that used in cardboard or wooden biltong boxes (urban) or climate-controlled dry rooms (commercial), cannot be used without the addition of nitrates or nitrites (curing salts). Depending on the spices used, a variety of flavours may be produced. Biltong can also be made in colder climates by using an electric lamp to dry the meat, but care must be taken to ventilate, as mould can begin to form on the meat.
A traditional slow dry will deliver a medium cure in about 4 days. An electric fan-assisted oven set to 40–70 °C (100–160 °F), with the door open a fraction to let out moist air, can dry the meat in approximately 4 hours. Although oven dried is ready to eat a day or two after preparation, traditional biltong makers still consider slow dried meat to be safer and of superior quality.
Comparison to jerky
Biltong differs from jerky in three distinct ways:
- The meat used in biltong can be much thicker due to the slower drying time in dry air conditions; typically biltong meat is cut in strips approximately 1" (25 mm) wide – but can be thicker. Jerky is normally very thin meat.
- The vinegar, salt and spices in biltong, together with the drying process, cure the meat as well as adding texture and flavour. Jerky is traditionally dried with salt but without vinegar.
- Jerky is often smoked; biltong is never smoked.
Biltong is a common product in Southern African butcheries and grocery stores, and can be bought in the form of wide strips (known as stokkies, meaning "little sticks"). It is also sold in plastic bags, sometimes shrink-wrapped, and may be either finely shredded or sliced as biltong chips.
There are also specialised retailers that sell biltong. These shops may sell biltong as "wet" (moist), "medium" or "dry". Additionally, some customers prefer it with a lot of fat, while others prefer it as lean as possible.
While biltong is usually eaten as a snack, it can also be diced up into stews, or added to muffins or pot bread. Biltong-flavoured potato crisps have also been produced, and there are cheese spreads with biltong flavour. Finely shredded biltong is eaten on slices of bread and in sandwiches.
Biltong is a high-protein food. Often, 200 g of beef are required to make 100 g of biltong, and the process of making biltong preserves most of the protein content. Some biltong can have up to 67% protein content.
Biltong's popularity has spread to many other countries, notably Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and now India which have large South African populations, and also to the United States. Biltong is also produced within South African expatriate communities across the globe, for example in Germany, Ireland  and even South Korea.
Biltong produced in South Africa may not be imported into Britain, according to rules governing the importation of meat-based products from non-EU countries laid down by HM Customs and Excise and its successor HM Revenue and Customs, thus it is made in the UK.
In the United States, biltong is relatively rare as beef jerky has been traditionally the more popular dried meat snack. Within the last five years, biltong has begun a small resurgence within the United States, particularly from South African immigrants who have brought their local culture and foods with them. This has been most common in affluent areas of major cities where the local population can afford to experience a delicacy such as Biltong.
Foods similar to biltong include:
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Sometimes the food donated as famine relief were memorably bizarre, and surprisingly popular, such as shark biltong (dried shark meat).
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[T]he meat [of the soupfin shark] is dried, salted and sold as shark biltong.
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Simba Launches Lay's Potato Chips in Biltong Flavor[dead link]
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[Biltong is] particularly good for teething babies
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