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Posted by Leander Schaerlaeckens
PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa -- He expertly maneuvered his cart through the grocery store, knowing the shortest routes to the choice cuts of beef, beer and potato chips. "I'll show you a real braai," my driver, Jonathan, had assured me, referring to the national obsession with South Africa's brand of barbecueing.
This was not a time to joke around. This was serious business.
Once we got to the meat aisle, he flipped through the dozens of strip steaks on offer until he found the right ones. When he finally decided on two, he cast them aside and decided on another cut, again sampling them for thickness, color and how much rind they carried (the more the better; it helps avoid drying out during the slow-roasting process). Two giant slabs of steak eventually made it into the cart.
"Don't worry," he said. "We've got more meat at home."
My biggest fear was that he was serious.
When we got to his house, this mystical braai turned out to be just a regular stone barbecue, not unlike the ones we have in the U.S. -- except that it seemed to be built as part of the house's structure, a good metaphor for the seriousness of braai around here.
He started off with a big, meticulously laid pile of wood, and set it ablaze. After about half an hour, the pile was knocked over and spread out to create a base of fire, if you will. Then a gas pipe, evidently designed especially for this purpose, entered the fray, and gas was pumped to further stoke the fire. Temperature was controlled with a blow dryer and an arsenal of special tools. All the while, Jonathan's father walked in and out to offer advice, analysis and insight. Jonathan needed none. He knew what he was doing. With the precision of a neurosurgeon he got the fire to the desired temperature, using a special lamp to check the glow on the smoldering charcoal, which had been added.
After about an hour the time had come.
Bring out the meat.
On went the giant steaks, a heap of lamb cutlets, stuffed portabella mushrooms, garlic bread and an army of potatoes. The artist's paints had been mixed to his liking, and he was ready to put his brush to the blank canvas.
How would I like my meat cooked?
Astonished that anybody could actually control such things on a barbecue, I blurted out "medium rare."
Another half-hour passed. The artist stepped back and checked his work from another angle, in another light.
Time to plate up, he adjudged.
On came the giant steak, the potatoes, the garlic bread, the lamb cuts and the mushrooms.