Getting a taste of South Africa

Fancy a taste of South Africa? The smiley, as it's known, is a popular delicacy across the country — but does a barbecued and then boiled sheep's head taste better than it sounds?

Tuesday, June 5, 2018,
By Anthony Sharpe
Preparation of smoked sheeps' heads in Langa, near Cape Town
Preparation of smoked sheeps' heads in Langa, near Cape Town
Photograph by Alamy

It's a warm, dry, early summer afternoon in Langa, the sprawling informal settlement on the fringes of Cape Town's leafy green suburbs. I've just sampled home-brewed sorghum beer sitting on a plastic crate in a corrugated iron shack, the thick and yeasty flavour still lining my mouth, the higher-than-expected alcohol content still buzzing in my ears.

We are taking a tour of the township with City Sightseeing, part of a drive to demystify these vast areas where so many of South Africa's people live and to bring much-needed tourism money to local businesses. We've worked up a good hunger padding the wide, dusty streets, and now our host has stopped us beside a pile of smouldering timber being tended by a rotund, sweating woman. Sitting atop the embers is the unforgettable sight of a whole sheep's head, blackened by the fire. The smiley, as it's known, is a popular delicacy across South Africa.

After cooking it comprehensively on the coals, the streetside chef skewers the head and deposits it in a pot of boiling water until tender. Our guide then sets to work on the now-ready smiley with a knife, inserting the edge of the blade into the chin and prising the whole face open (a gruesome sight, and an eye-opening one for this carnivore to be reminded of what eating meat actually means). I consider myself an adventurous eater, and show little compunction when he slices off a piece of the tongue and offers it to me, followed by a goodly chunk of cheek. I've never been much for tongue (considering it a dish best served fresh and not swallowed), but the cheek is tender and mild in flavour. I chew it and grin casually, as if to say, "No problem."

But my trial by fired sheep's head isn't over: it's then that our host pushes the knife into the eye socket and digs out a whole, cooked eyeball. He holds it aloft for inspection. "You wanna try it?" he asks. My own still-liquid eye twitches. Sure. Why not? Likely sensing my thinly veiled concern, he slices it down the middle and gives me half, which I bite into tentatively. I'll say that the texture of a cooked eyeball is chewier than I expected, sitting uncomfortably somewhere between a hard-boiled egg and undercooked chicken. I can proudly say it went down the hatch without incident; I can more humbly admit that home-brewed beer and eyeball make for something of a challenging digestive combination.

Still, with rising food prices and global warming making head-to-tail eating both a fiduciary and ethical necessity, it might not be too long before we're all hankering for some head. Just spare me the hairy eyeball.

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Published in National Geographic Traveller — The Africa Collection 2018

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