Like my fellow foodie bloggers, I was delighted to return from South Africa to an email in my in-box inviting me to review The Lost Art of Real Cooking: Rediscovering the Pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time, by Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger (A Perigee Book, published by the Penguin Group). A full review will follow, but first, I felt that I couldn’t in good faith review a cookbook, even a memoir-type cookbook, without attempting at least some of the recipes. Given my recent travels, one recipe jumped right out: Swazi Sauce, supposedly an authentic braai (barbecue) sauce hailing from Swaziland, as taught to Ken Albala by a friend and Swazi. It is a simple enough recipe and since the mercury was finally below 90 degrees, it seemed a perfect night to fire up the grill.
Let’s dive right into my beef with this recipe, one, I suspect, that will plague me throughout many of the recipes in this book: there is such a thing as too little information. Regular readers will know that I am a fan of detailed recipes (my recipes on this site are more detailed than most, and anyone who counts Rose Levy Beranbaum as among her personal cooking heroes is bound to be a fan of the meticulously detailed recipe) but I am also a fan of flexibility in cooking, and that includes ingredients, amounts, techniques, you name it. I’ve been cooking for a long while now, and I am intimidated by neither the overly detailed nor suspiciously vague recipe: I am generally happy to just pitch in and give it a go. But if I’m trying to recreate an “authentic” flavor in an ethnic cuisine, one that I have never tasted before, some clues as to taste, texture, amounts, yield – something – would be vastly helpful. Let me illustrate what I mean; here is the basic recipe, reprinted exactly from Chapter 10, Fermented Beverages:
“First and most important, there must be beer, the good stuff. Back then my favorite was Old Peculier, but a decent pale ale works wonders. Then a glop of ketchup; a good dash of Tabasco; and a dribble of honey, lemon and pepper. The proportions are utterly unimportant.”
Mr. Albala goes on to say that you can essentially add any flavors, in any amounts that you like: the only essential ingredient is beer. He also provides clear instructions for marinating and grilling chicken, which is quite helpful. My problem is: what is this sauce supposed to taste like? Look like? A “glop” of ketchup can be a tablespoon or a cup. Likewise a ‘dribble’ of honey. The basting suggestion in the cooking instructions seem to indicate a thick, BBQ-type style sauce, but that means you are adding a lot more than a “glop” of ketchup, unless you are only supposed to use a portion of a beer? Sigh. I’m all for flexibility and creativity in recipes, but this kind of recipe just frustrates me. When I added the basic ingredients and tasted it, it tasted (not surprisingly) like beer & ketchup. Not all that tantalizing. I tried to jazz it up a bit while staying true to the basic ‘recipe’, mostly by adding more Tabasco and a lot of dried chile flakes. Eventually I stopped fussing with it, shrugged, and tossed in a couple of skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts to marinate, hoping that somehow the flavor of the meat would magically be much better than the flavor of the marinade. Which is essentially what happened.
The chicken was good; not fabulous, mind-blowing, or knock-it-out-the-park amazing, but good. Flavorful, moist and enjoyable, despite the fact that we charred the outside of each breast in our impatience to eat. I could not detect any particular ingredient of the marinade in the flavor: neither beer, nor tomato, nor spice stood out, but the overall flavor and texture was good. Would I make it again? I doubt it. But I am now intrigued by the possibilities of marinating in beer: I think the chicken may have been more interesting if I had skipped the ketchup altogether. So maybe I will experiment, and tweak, and make my own version of Swazi Sauce; that is, after all, what the authors of Lost Art are hoping we will do.
Stay tuned for more recipe attempts from The Lost Art of Real Cooking, along with a book review.
Taken directly from Swazi Sauce in The Lost Art of Real Cooking by Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger
- 1, 12-oz beer, preferably good quality (I used Sam Adam’s Latitude 48, a hoppy IPA)
- about 1 cup ketchup
- about 1/2 cup honey
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp dried chile flakes
- about 1/2 tbsp Tabasco
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 2 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts, for grilling (optional)
- Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl; whisk to blend. Taste and adjust seasonings. Pour marinade over chicken (or beef, or pork, etc.) and allow to marinate, refrigerated, for at least 2 hours to overnight.
- Light a charcoal grill with the coals piled to one side (or preheat a propane grill on low) to create a cooler side of the grill. Grill the chicken breasts on the cooler side (or over low flame), basting occasionally, for a long, slow cooking time in order to ensure that the internal meat is fully cooked before the outside burns. Internal meat temperature should read 170 degrees F when the chicken is done.
- Remove chicken from the grill and allow to rest, covered, at least 10 minutes before serving.
- They appear to be endless. I think I will experiment with a simple beer marinade; adding nothing more than salt & pepper, maybe a touch of lemon. From the recipe, it appears that you could just buy a commercial BBQ sauce that you like and add some beer and then, hey! presto! you have Swazi Sauce. I am skeptical, but since I didn’t make it to Swaziland on this trip to South Africa, I can’t say either way. I guess I will just have to go back.
- You could also roast the chicken in a 350 degree F oven for about 45 – 60 minutes.
Cooked chicken will last in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Prepared marinade should last several days refrigerated; any marinade that remains after marinating meat should be discarded.
Grilling season, which for us, tends to happen year round.
Yes, dear friend, you did exactly what I hoped you would do. Loosen up, give it a shot, and enjoy. You may have burnt it a little, but it sure does look good. And of course the intention was to make it your own and tweek. I bet you will hit on a combo that you think is fabulous and mind blowing! Happy Eating, Ken
No disrespect, Ken: you are preaching to the choir on getting people back in the kitchen. I will continue to experiment, and you’ll know when I hit on a combo that *I* can’t live without! 🙂
Friend, You’ve inspired me to cook this sauce as printed to see what I was so crazy about. I haven’t done it without tweeking in many years, but I’m following myself exactly today. 4 Chicken thighs are marinating in 1/2 bottle of beer (Sierra Nevada Summer Brew), 1/2 cup of ketchup, 2 tbs honey, a lot of pepper, and about 20 squirts of tabasco. And juice of one lemon. Sure smells great. I’ll cook it in a kettle drum over hard wood, very low heat and a lot of smoke. Hickory chips. Maybe that’s the magic, because I can imagine on a gas grill it not being fabulous. We’ll see.
Sweet! Let me know how it turns out. We also cook over a coal fire, natural hardwood charcoal, usually with a few cedar blocks thrown in, but no hickory.
For my next trick, I am planning on trying out the cultured butter recipe (if I can ever stay ahead of all this zucchini). Stay tuned! 🙂
It turned out exactly as I remember it. Really moist, very intensely chickeny. Mine didn’t char quite as much as yours. But you’re right, it’s nothing like a bottled barbecue sauce. And you really don’t taste the individual ingredients at all. Normally I throw a curve ball in for kicks. Raspberry jam is really nice, as is cinnamon and za’atar. But this was really good. Simple, but as I recall a good base on which to riff.
Have fun with the butter!
P.S. I’ll post a picture on my blog later today.