Food by VICE

Drop the Jerky and Start Eating Biltong

Warren Pala's New Jersey-based Braaitime is one of the few biltong producers in the country, and it's slowly chipping away at the giant market share of his biggest competitor, jerky.

by Serena Solomon
Jul 27 2016, 4:00pm

Freshly sliced biltong. All photos by the author.

It's unfortunate that Warren Pala is misunderstood when he says the word "biltong" to Americans.

"Bull's tongue?" is often their curious response, according to Pala, 40, whose deep South African accent puts a twist on the name of the product he sells.

Spreading biltong—South Africa's jerky, beef prosciutto, or whatever you want to call it—across America is Pala's passion and business. He opened the New Jersey-based Braaitime, one of the few biltong producers in the country, in 2005 and is slowly chipping away at the giant market share of his biggest competitor, jerky.

Freshly sliced biltong at Warren Pala's Braaitime factory in New Jersey.

Freshly sliced biltong at Warren Pala's Braaitime factory in New Jersey. All photos by the author.

"Biltong is a lot like the Italian charcuteries," said Pala. "All the meat's enzymes are intact, so you can digest it better."

Modern jerky is often cooked and laced with sugar and preservatives. Its stringy, dry texture stands in contrast to biltong's tender red center, reminiscent of medium-rare steak.

Biltong (at least Pala's, anyway) is brined in vinegar, salted and spiced with herbs like coriander, clove and nutmeg. No sugar is added. The meat, usually beef round, is hung and dried for 21 days before it is thinly sliced and packaged.

At Braaitime, biltong is hung out to dry for 21 days.

In the factory's drying room, there is row upon row of hanging meat. It's a scene reminiscent of the veranda of the childhood home of Pala's wife, who grew up in Zimbabwe. Her grandfather taught her father, who then taught her husband to make biltong.

"It was literally a piece of string hooked up across the porch with strips of meat hanging off it," said Nicholle Pala.

A batch of biltong at the Braaitime factory

A batch of biltong at the Braaitime factory.

The Dutch word biltong means "strip of meat." As Dutch settlers pushed into the African continent, they preserved whatever they hunted using what they had—namely, air. Later, the French Huguenots' vineyards brought vinegar, and the Cape of Good Hope's location on maritime trade routes offered access to spices from the East. These factors led to the creation of what biltong is today.

When the Palas moved from Johannesburg to the US in 2001, decent biltong was scarce, so they made their own in cupboard of their New York City apartment.

"I bent some coat hangers into hooks and used a fan," Pala said. "It really was an elementary beginning."

Biltong should have a red center. It is air-dried, not cooked

Biltong should have a red center. It is air-dried, not cooked.

Besides supplying the family, Pala's cupboard biltong came out as dinner parties. His American guests were impressed, giving him the idea that there could be a market for biltong in his new country.

Now he is on track to produce 350,000 pounds, up from 20,000 five years ago.

However, educating the American public about an exotic product with a strange name isn't easy. The paleo and CrossFit crowds devour biltong, especially the grass-fed kind, but jerky is still king of the truck stop snack.

A staff member at the Braaitime factory prepares droëwors, a dried sausage.

In 2013, a big jump in sales came from a surprising source: Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty. During a screening of the reality TV show, Robertson received package of biltong from South Africa and proceed to educate the show's millions of fans about its virtues.

"All of a sudden every redneck in the country wanted to try it," said Pala.

Smaller brands have also sprung up in recent years, giving biltong a branding makeover and landing shelf space in Whole Foods stores.

Nicolle and Warren Pala are the founders of Braaitime, one of the few biltong production facilities in the US.

Nicolle and Warren Pala are the founders of Braaitime, one of the few biltong production facilities in the US.

Pala has collaborated with a lot of these young biltong brands.

The first year that Brooklyn Biltong was in business, owner Ben van den Heever used his own branding with Pala's product.

"Warren has always been a pioneer in biltong and he gave us an opportunity to start our company," said van den Heever.

Freshly sliced biltong.

Freshly sliced biltong.

Now, Brooklyn Biltong has its own production facility so van den Heever can use his grandfather's recipe.

"It took me a while to realize that this is not a competitive market. It's a collaborative one," said Pala. "Our only competitor is jerky."

Tagged:
new jersey
Munchies
Food
South Africa
Eat
jerky
biltong
Braaitime
Warren Pala
dried meat