blatjang

This is a word I’ve liked since I first saw it in a cookbook. (I can’t remember which cookbook, but it was probably the More with Less Cookbook, published by the Mennonite Central Committee and my source for a variety of recipes – e.g., nasi goreng – not found in my mother’s other books.)

I’ve given away that it’s something to do with food, so that will prejudice your tasting of the word already (though of course the signification is an important part of the full flavour – it’s just that you don’t want it to overpower the phonetic and gestural aspects before you savour them independently). But this word has such a force to it, an almost comic-book punch: it really seems like a marching band, doesn’t it, with the trumpet going “blat” and the cymbals going “jang”? Definitely zippy on the tongue and catchy for the eyes.

And with that tj in the middle, there’s a fairly good likelihood (especially given where I first saw the word) that it’s from a language that has had a Dutch influence, at least in the spelling. I have long assumed it to be an Indonesian word. The ng at the end certainly has a Malay feel to it – Malay being the language from which have sprung, as independent languages but erstwhile dialects, Indonesian and Filipino.

I was right about the Malay/Indonesian source and Dutch influence, but not exactly. You see, blatjang is a word you’re going to encounter in South Africa, not in Malaysia or Indonesia. You might in those countries hear a similar word: belachan, also spelled belacan, which is a Malay name for a shrimp paste. Sambal belacan can also name a chili paste. But blatjang is not that. It’s an Afrikaans rendition of the word, pronounced more like “blood young” or “bluh chung”, and what it’s a name for is usually called chutney in English. (Chutney comes from Hindi, by the way.)

Indeed, I can hardly think of this word without thinking blatjang (chutney), because that’s how it was listed in the cookbook and that’s how it tends to show up in English references to it. But, to be fair, it’s a specific kind of chutney: a very fruity one, described in some places as like chutney mixed with jam. Apricots are a common ingredient. Of course, so are chili peppers.

So this word, and this sauce, come from the Cape Malay community first (which started as Javanese and other Indonesians and Malays who had been brought to South Africa as slaves by the Dutch). But now blatjang is a staple of South African cuisine. As one South African expat nostalgic for the cuisine of his homeland put it (at expat.ru/forum/showthread.php?p=805876), “Nou praat jy die waarheid, boet! Blatjang met bobotie…..gevolg met melktert en Van Der Hum. Mmmmm……smaaklik.” Which means “Now you’re talking, dude! [or: Now you're telling the truth, buddy!] Blatjang with bobotie… followed by milk tart and Van Der Hum. Mmm… delicious!”

Oh, bobotie, milk tart, Van Der Hum? One’s a meat dish (spiced minced meat with an egg topping), one’s a dessert, and one’s a liqueur. And at least bobotie, if not the others, deserves a word tasting too. If you want recipes, chef Google will oblige copiously. Of course, if you just like tasting the words, you now have a nice and zippy one. But may I suggest trying some blatjang too? Then you’ll surely think of that flavour as well whenever you see this word.

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3 responses to “blatjang

  1. Pingback: bobotie | Sesquiotica

  2. Pingback: awesome, fantastic | Sesquiotica

  3. Pingback: risotto | Sesquiotica

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