The word “biltong” is from the Dutch “bil” (rump) and “tong” (strip or tongue).
Biltong as we know this delicacy today, is a rich inheritance from pioneering South African forefathers who sun dried meat during their trek across the African Subcontinent.
The basic spicing is a dramatic blend of vinegar, salt, sugar, coriander and other spices. These were in abundance in the then Cape Colony, as the French Huguenots produced wine and vinegar from their grape crops and the colony was the halfway stop for seafarers plying the spice routes of the East.
The Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in the 17th century brought recipes for dried meat from Europe. The need for preservation in the new colony was pressing. Building up herds of livestock took a long time. There was native game about but it could take hunters days to track and kill a large animal such as an eland and they were then faced with the problem of preserving a large mass of meat in a short time in a hot climate during a period of history before iceboxes had been invented. Desiccation solved the problem. Biltong as we understand it 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 (Cape Town) north-eastward (away from British rule) into the interior of Southern Africa during the Great Trek. The raw meat was preserved from decay and insects within a day or two, and within a fortnight, would be black and rock-hard after it had fully cured.
Biltong vs Beef Jerky
Biltong is similar to beef jerky in that they are both spiced, dried meats, but differ in their typical ingredients, taste and production process.
The meat used in biltong can be much thicker; typically biltong meat is cut in strips approx 1 inch wide – but can be thicker. Jerky is normally very thin meat.
The vinegar and salt in biltong, together with the drying process cures the meat as well as adding texture and flavor. Jerky is traditionally dried without vinegar.