Mentioning the word “braai” provokes a Pavlovian response among men of our nation. Chests puff out like randy pigeons, hands reach for imaginary tongs, pursed lips murmur appreciation. Next to the endangered Springbok, a “nice braai” is a very dear thing.

Put it down to geographic determination. While we resent ill-informed foreigners referring to our country as a backward place, devoid of washing machines, where ferocious cats roam the streets, when it comes to cooking outdoors we readily embrace our own primal cliché. If South Africa is the cradle of mankind, then by rights we are also the principal tong masters of our species.

Meat plus fire plus outdoors equals mancrack. It’s a simple evolutionary equation, yet one of vital importance. Mastering fire with the purpose of cooking meat elevated early chefs from a knuckle-dragging diet of mastodon tartare to unheard of culinary heights and prehistoric popularity. Today’s equivalent, a civilised deboned leg of lamb in the Weber, is no different. Around an open flame and wood smoke, our jaws set determinedly and a sense of calm and concentration becomes etched in our eyes (before they start to water). As we approach the half-drum, we readily reclaim our mantle as the guardians of Gondwanaland, supreme hunter-gatherers, providers, fathers and frontiersmen.

And it is the last frontier. Whereas the lounge has been expropriated for book club, our remote control abducted by the cult of Oprah and the garage reserved for your kid’s hobby habit, the braai is one of the few things we still own. The ritual and ceremony of making a fire and prepping the meat is part Incan sacrifice, part Japanese tea ceremony. A study in bloody perfection. But here’s the rub: when it comes down to it, are we really that good? Have we challenged ourselves and evolved as far as we can? Any cretin can tan a chop, turn a steak or coil a piece of wors, but it takes time, effort and experimentation to elevate your skills. So we consulted Mike Snyman, chairman of the South African Braai Association, winner of the BBQ World Championships and two-time champ of our National Weber Challenge. From the ultimate leg of lamb to the best cut of steak, he tells you how to turn your “nice braai” into an event for anyone lucky enough to crack the nod.

DECISION TIME
What we toss in the shade of the umbrella term “braaiing”, the Americans separate into direct and indirect cooking. When employing the direct method, you treat your braai like a stove. The coals are spread evenly across the grate and you sear your meat directly above the heat source. Quick and easy, this is compatible with most braais, perfect for the simple searing of steak, chops and wors and the method most of us employ. For indirect cooking, it’s best to use an enclosed braai or kettle braai like a Weber or Cadac, which reflect heat off and around the entire braai, cooking the meat on all sides like a convection oven. Arrange your coals around the sides of the charcoal grate, place your large cuts of meat in the centre, put the lid in place and slow cook to perfection. Try not to peek or fiddle – you’ll lose heat.

FUEL AROUND
A bit of a purist, Snyman prefers to braai with wood. “With wood, you get the experience, the look of it and the smell from the smoke. I use rooikrantz, but fig is also great. Vine stumps give you a very nice coal. Don’t use Port Jackson: it burns down to ash in no time. I don’t cook on gas and I don’t like briquettes because they’ve got a turpentine-like oily smell. I like smoke, but obviously on a Weber you have to use charcoal or briquettes.”

FUEL TIP: “If you’re doing an open braai, just as the meat goes on, throw lots of rosemary on the coals. You get a lot of smoke and that flavour goes into the meat. It’s especially good for lamb chops. Ensure you do it while the meat is still wet, because once you’ve sealed it, you’ve sealed it. You could also use thyme, lavender and bay leaf (the latter flames a lot). For some added flavour, rosemary stalks can also be used for kebab skewers.”

BIRDIE NUM-NUM
When you braai chicken, the result is often a charred ghost of a bird that’s still bloody on the inside. It takes longer to cook and can prove tricky if the temperature is too high. The other problem lies in maintaining a constant heat if you allow the coals to cool to a manageable temperature. Snyman recommends doing a chicken whole on a skewer in the Weber using the indirect method. “Stuff it with half an orange or naartjie, fill the cavity with fresh herbs, a nice blob of butter, salt and pepper, more herbs and the other half orange. Once it’s on the spit, before it’s on the fire, I rub it with olive oil and Khoisan sea salt or Maldon salt, ground black pepper and a bit of rosemary or thyme. Rub this on finely to create a crust, giving the chicken a beautifully crispy skin. It’s self-basting as it rolls so it doesn’t drip much. Give it an hour. As you put it in, add rosemary or hickory chips (not the fine powder) to the coals and close the lid quickly. It smokes during that initial heating section and there’s a beautiful penetration of smoke into the meat. When you cut the chicken, you’ll notice the meat from the skin is beautifully pinkish or slightly orange.”

CHICKEN TIP: Snyman flips the Pope’s nose up and sticks a skewer through it, right through the orange and out the front. “It keeps the whole thing tight and stops it from slopping around. You must have a drip tray at the bottom; otherwise you have the juices running down into the mechanism. I use a piece of heavy tin foil and turn the sides up all round the edge.”

FINE SWINE
Snyman believes South African pork is so good that basting it in a flavour-heavy sauce is unnecessary. “Americans like to use as much baste as possible, so when it comes out it looks like a black piece of meat. South Africans generally don’t like that. It burns, chars the marinade and I don’t think it’s good for you. It also taints the flavour of the pork. Go for pork shoulder done on a rotisserie on the Weber rather than ribs. We get nice ribs, but our porkies are too small. Do it in the same way as the chicken. Oil it lightly and salt it. No basting whatsoever. A piece of pork the size of a decent chicken will take about an hour and a quarter.”

PORK TIP: If you do decide to do ribs, take a spoon and a piece of muslin cloth in your hand, and on the bone side (inside) of the rib, take the whole thin membrane off. The membrane is slippery, so the cloth helps you grip it while the spoon helps you hook it. Doing this, Snyman says, “makes the ribs much more tender, they cook better and the marinade or salt penetrates better.”

PORK CHEAT: If you have neither the time nor the inclination to braai your ribs for hours until tender, just boil them on the stove with a splash of soya sauce and squeezed limes or lemons for about 45 minutes. Drain, allow to cool, then marinade. Because they’re already cooked, when you braai them over a direct flame, all you’re doing is finishing them off. Crispy, sticky and falling off the bone, your guests will beg for more.

CLAIM A STEAK
Snyman’s cut of choice is the rib-eye. If you can find it, he says, “grass-fed beef is nicer than grain-fed. It’s cleaner and more marbled so you get more flavour throughout.” He favours a simple seasoning approach that respects the flavour of the meat. “Put on a bit of oil, finely-chopped fresh herbs and ground black pepper. No salt. You salt it afterwards. Seal it on both sides, then cook. Don’t turn it all the time or have it well done – you lose flavour.”

BEEF TIP: “I’m terribly fussy when it comes to beef. For me, there’s only one place to buy it and that’s Belthazar Steakhouse. Their meat is superb. Rib-eye, rump, Chicago-cut on the bone.” For Joburg, an excellent option is Braeside Butchery in Parkhurst. If you don’t have time to track down a specialist butcher, the aged rib-eye from Woolworths is a decent option.

SMOKING FUN
Snyman beats competitors from all over at the world champs. His winning dish? Smoked fish. “At home I smoke kob, geelbek (Cape salmon), snoek, angelfish and yellowtail, but you’ve got to go for the fish you can get because there’s never anything around.” Of late, he’s taken to smoking something a little different: oysters. Here’s how: “Prise the shell open with an oyster knife, being careful to avoid spilling the liquid. Discard the top shell. Cut the oysters free and replace in the bottom shell. Don’t rinse the oysters with water, as this washes away the natural sea liquor trapped in the shell. Place the oysters on the tray of your smoker (see right) to keep them level. Season with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon. A dash of Tabasco is good too. Sprinkle oak shavings in the base of the smoker. Light the shavings and smoke for eight minutes.”

FISH TIP: “Have a grid for fish and a grid for meat and never clean that fish grid. It builds up all that fish oil. The oil cures the metal and saves you oiling it every time. I oil my fish on both sides anyway. Obviously, if you get skin sticking to it, take that off with a wire brush, but never wash it down or scrub it with hot water and soap.”

– Tudor Caradoc-Davies