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.
Published in National Geographic Traveller — The Africa Collection 2018