A Cape Town Specialty: "Smiley," or Boiled Sheep’s Head

No 46

In the township of Langa, in Cape Town, South Africa, a woman lifts a smoldering sheep's head out of brightly burning flames. The expression on its scorched face is fiendish, with lips curled back into a toothy grin. Preparing this choice piece of livestock anatomy has nothing to do with superstition or scare tactics. It's a local food item called “smiley," and it's roasted whole over an outdoor grill called a braai.

Langa is working-class community, where many of the dwellings are simple dirt-floored shacks. In 1927 the township was one of the areas in Cape Town set aside for black Africans. While today most of the houses have running water and electricity, the end of apartheid has not brought significant increases in income to most of Langa's residents. The price for smiley is right, however: a whole head sells at a roadside stand for the equivalent of just a few US dollars and provides enough meat to feed a family of five.

Cooks in the township prepare this bizarre-looking victual every day. After lifting the head off the flames, they use a hot piece of rebar – collected from a nearby construction site – to sear the off any remaining hair. The head is then boiled in a pot, removed and scrubbed, and hacked in two with an ax. The brains are discarded, but the ears, eyes, and tongue are not. In fact, many who eat them consider these the tastiest parts.

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