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10 September 2009 

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Sheep's Head a Favorite Food in South Africa's Kwazulu-Natal Province

10 September 2009

In South Africa, recipes indigenous to the country are appearing increasingly on menus across the nation. Even eateries in affluent suburbs now offer meals previously dismissed as poor quality food containing bad ingredients.

Some restaurateurs say the phenomenon indicates a changing South Africa, with the country’s diverse peoples – once divided by apartheid – now eager to taste one another’s unique cuisine. Even so, there are some culinary concoctions that are not crossing cultural boundaries.
Butcher Ben Qiniso slicing meat from a sheep's head
Butcher Ben Qiniso slicing meat from a sheep's head

The Victoria Market is a fetid, fluorescent cavern, washed by the salty sea breeze that blows from the nearby harbor of Durban, the largest port city in South Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal province.

Carbon dioxide from burst animal bowels and the sour-sweet aroma of fresh blood hang like a mist of death over the ancient building, its façade dripping with black moss. From hooks above stalls droop pale strings of intestines.
Ben Qiniso’s white plastic boots squeak across the grey concrete floor, as he paces towards a mound of meat, sharpening his knives as he goes.

The market’s chief butcher seizes a severed sheep’s head.

Grilled sheep heads along with a vast variety of other meat products
Grilled sheep heads along with a vast variety of other meat products
“We sell ox tongues, brains of bull, pig feet and goat ears and testicles! But this is our top seller!” Qiniso exclaims, holding the dirty brown blood-matted head aloft as if it were a trophy.

“Who has the better smile, me or him?” he asks, pulling the lips apart and smiling alongside the sheep’s head.

Qiniso’s voice rises above a whining choir of machines, silver blades slicing through skull as if it were satin.

Head on a plate

KwaZulu-Natal is home to South Africa’s Zulu ethnic group and also has the largest population of Indian origin outside of India.

It’s mostly these people who relish sheep’s heads – known locally as “smileys.”

Qiniso explains, “The sheep…. when they die, they smile…. And when you cook them, they smile. That is why we call them ‘smileys’!”

At the nearby Early Morning Market, the sheep’s’ heads are stripped of hair and washed thoroughly. They’re then parboiled in massive vats, before being roasted over hot coals. The result is a head scalded a golden brown, the intense heat shrinking its lips into a grotesque smile.

A potential customer inspects the goods for sale at the Victoria Market
A potential customer inspects the goods for sale at the Victoria Market
This is fast food a galaxy away from McDonald’s.

Every day, thousands of commuters from nearby taxi ranks and a train station buy hundreds of cooked sheep heads to share among themselves or to take home to their families.

“We call it inhloko isigqokweni (head-on-a-plate),” laughs sheep head salesman, Innocent Lamlani. “It is us Zulus that eat it like this. Very simple.”

“With sheep heads, you get a lot of meat coming out of it and it’s high in protein. The only things you cut out are the teeth; that’s it. Everything else, it’s eatable,” explains Thashen Chetty, the manager of a stall specializing in sheep’s heads.

Unprompted, his colleague, Ivan Mudaly, says, “Sheep’s head is not disgusting. Eating frog legs and sushi – now that’s disgusting.”

“Smileys keep on smiling!” Qiniso adds.

‘Curried sheep’s head is the best!’
'Raw' sheep heads for sale at the market
'Raw' sheep heads for sale at the market

Malthi Ramsunder, a cook at the Victoria Market, says South Africans of Indian origin generally prefer their sheep’s head to be “a bit more refined.”

Flesh is removed from the skull, as is the brain. The meat is chopped into pieces, strewn with curry spices, fried and braised, and eventually served in the form of a rich stew.

Ramsunder’s secret, she says, is a blend of spices found only in Durban.

“It’s called Durban mixed masala!”

Suddenly, a head pops over her counter. “She lies!” the man says. “She puts dagga (marijuana) in the curry! That’s why so many people come to buy from her!”

Ramsunder ignores the man, and continues, “I add the masala (depending) on how hot the customer likes it. He can either go for hot head or cold head. There are plenty of men around here who like their head nice and hot!” she says.

Whatever recipe is being followed, hardly a smidgen of the sheep’s head is wasted.

“People like the ears. They say it’s chewy,” says Chetty. “For many customers, the best part is the eyes. It’s a delicacy. Like an oyster is to you, that’s how a sheep eye is to me.”

Ramsunder declares, “The heads and intestines are the parts the rich people don’t want, but they are often the tastiest parts of the sheep.”

Innocent Lamlani stares with obvious disdain at the cook’s fiery stew.

“The Indians do not like bones,” he says. “Also the Mlungus (white people) say steak is the best meat, but us Zulus, we like meat to have the bones. Eating the bones with our hands is part of our culture. It is not the good meal without the bones to crunch.”

‘He’s getting rich off these heads!’

White faces were once rare in the market, but Thashen Chetty says, “Times are changing.” He says whites have been appearing regularly as an economic recession has swept South Africa.

“Factories in Durban are closing down. Thousands of people are losing their jobs,” Chetty says. “Meat has become very expensive, so more and more people, including whites, are going for the cheaper cuts, like sheep heads. My shop is expanding. The recession is being good to me.”

A whole head sells for about 30 rands, slightly more than US$ 3. One head feeds a family of five.

“We make more than 100 percent profit on each head, even though it’s cheap,” Chetty acknowledges.

“Hayi (No)! He’s getting rich off these heads!” Mudaly shouts.

Chetty flashes a grimace at his friend, and retorts, “Not rich enough to buy the Ferrari I want. But I’m a lucky man. I’m smiling.”

“Hey, Tashen, you’re a smiley, too!” says Ben Qiniso, entering the verbal fray.

Then, a mischievous smile plays across the butcher’s face.

“Walkie Talkies taste better than sheep heads,” he says.

“What’s a Walkie Talkie?” a bystander asks.

“It’s the grilled chicken feet – the walkie – and the chicken heads – the talkie,” he laughs. “Here,” he says to the man, holding out a clawed chicken foot. The man recoils.

Qiniso begins to munch on the foot. “Hmm! Hmm!” he exclaims, in exaggerated pleasure, spitting a nail onto the floor. “Yes, chicken feet are better than sheep heads,” he says.

Mudaly pushes Qiniso playfully.

“I use chicken feet to scratch [myself],” he tells the butcher, in obvious opposition to Qiniso’s love of walkie talkies.

The two men laugh and return to their posts, alongside the steaming pots and smiles of death. And the bargaining among the blood and guts begins again.


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