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Trip Report South Africa, Cow Head Soup

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En route to dinner I am asked by Ja-ba-low if I have ever eaten at a hostel. As a backpacker, my immediate is “yes” although I soon discover that where we are having dinner is like no hostel I have ever visited.

Our hostel amounts to an open area with a few food vendors, a butcher shop and more interestingly a few communal barbeque grills made from 55 gallon drums. Our first stop here is at the butcher shop where we pick out a steak and a type of sausage, “borra-vous”, that has a Dutch influence. Our steak is seasoned and along with the side dishes, “Pap” and “Salsa” which we will pick up later, our feast is about R$50 (US$8).

Ja-ba-low finds an open grill and the cooking begins. No fancy utensils, our meats are maneuvered with a communal metal coat hanger type prong or the quick flip of a hand. Although, I have been to many barbeque's before, the simplicity and communal aspects of this one makes it a charming experience.

With our meat cooked, we find a space at one of the many open tables and then head off for the “icing on the cake” so to speak of our meal. I am going to have some “Cow Head Soup”, a favorite among the men and men only for one or two intriguing reasons. This is one dish that women are not particularly allowed to partake in. No soup for them!

Approaching the soup guy, I can sense he is serious about his product as I watch him tend to his vat of goods. He has no shortage of customers and I wait my turn in line for what he has to offer. Ja-ba-low makes some gesture and conversations with him then he tells me to practice my Zulu thank you. As a guest, sort of, I have just scored a free plate of cow head meat. To complete this portion of our meal, I again return to the soup guy this time with a styro cup purchased for a few rands from the butcher shop. Another wait in line and my cup is filled with a warm almost clear broth.

Back at our table, I am now ready to eat without utensils. I tear at the steak and sausage while following Ja-ba-low instruction to prepare the “pap” for eating. A desirable portion of the hot white maize side dish is rolled and shaped between the fingers then combined with the meat and salsa. A bit sticky at first but it all comes together nicely on the palette for an expected taste.

Next it's time to try the manly dish and I know I must erase from my mind that I am eating the meat from a cow's head. Again, following instructions and I am chewing on meat that ironically is from the inside cheek of the cow. It's a bit tough with the texture of a chicken gizzard although the flavor is not that bad. A few more pieces then it is time to partake in the portion of this meal that makes it attractive and a “men only” dish.

Ja-ba-low hands me the styro cup and I now stare into the warm now separated oily broth that is not particularly pleasant to look at. I am having second thoughts and start asking questions about it. An obvious stalling tactic that does not work. With some encouraging words, I blank out my mind and take a sip of the broth and then another. The taste is surprising. It seems to have a garlic flavor but I am told the flavor comes from just boiling down the cow's head meat with salt and water.

Learning the believed local benefits of this soup I can see why it is so popular with the men. But what about the women I ask, apparently they have plants and fruits for the same effect.

I can see that the dish has already effected some of the young men that were sitting next to us as they are happy to entertain us with a little dance as they are leaving.