Biltong is a form of dried, cured meat that originated in Southern African countries (South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia). Various types of meat are used to produce it, ranging from beef and game meats to fillets of meat cut into strips following the grain of the muscle, or flat pieces sliced across the grain. It is related to beef jerky in that they are both spiced, dried meats; however, the typical ingredients, taste and production processes may differ.
The word biltong is from the Dutch bil (“buttock””) and tong (“strip” or “tongue”).
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 Organization, 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.
The need for food preservation in South Africa 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. Once suitably dried, the biltong was ready for packing in cloth bags, which allow air circulation to prevent mould.
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 can be used as a teething aid for babies.
Biltong is a high-protein food.