South African Street Food: Smileys

This is street food for the townships, a product of the racial and class divides throughout southern Africa. The local butchers get the prime cuts of meat, and the township residents make good use of the heads, a no cost source of protein. The value of the smiley rests primarily in the tongue (if you don’t get the tongue, you were ripped off), but the cheeks and even the brains (so I hear) yield an abundance of flavor and a great story to tell. The sheep heads are broiled in large drums. The fur is then charred with heated metal rods (completely revealing the sheep’s teeth and thus the source of the misleadingly benign name). If you can muster the courage, certainly eat one on the spot. The chef will present you with a finished head, probably place it on some old newspaper, and pour out a small bit of salt. Then you rip off pieces of meat and season it with the salt, to taste. The meat is so tender and compact in flavor that the salt is actually unnecessary. In any event, after working up the gall to go toe-to-toe with a sheep’s head, seasoning is the last of your concerns. If you are still squeamish, ask one of the chefs to eat it with you. The chef will instruct you in the ways of the smiley, and appreciate the opportunity for free food. As always, sharing food and drink is a quick way to make friends, even if we are talking about a decapitated head.

Smileys are not served in any ordinary ‘Western’ venue to speak of. To try one, you have to venture into the townships. For the most part, a township tour (the tour is already a critical component of exposure to sub-Saharan Africa) guide will know where to find them, if available. Otherwise, good luck. These smileys were made in the Khayelitsha Township of Cape Town.

Written by Jason Summerfield