Tasting barbequed sheep’s head in South Africa

Tasting barbequed sheep’s head in South Africa

Whilst travelling in South Africa, I had the chance to try a local township delicacy; the Smiley. A Smiley is a whole barbequed sheep’s head with its lips bared in a sick charred grin, thus the name Smiley. Locals in the townships say it’s a good cure for a babelas, the local word for hangover.

I love nothing more than tempting fate – even if it means the chance of food poisoning – especially because nearly every South African I had met told me they would never voluntarily go into a township let alone try something that was cooked on the side of a road in less than sanitary conditions, but then again what’s travelling without a little adventure? Even my out-going, born and raised South African tour leader, who told us to push our boundaries whilst on the tour, had never tried it. That did it for me! I was determined that today was to be the day my tour leader got to know the taste of Smileys, as would I and anyone else that was game enough to try it.

My 2 week whirlwind tour revealed different sides of South Africa and one of the sad realities is that many of its citizens live in townships where life is filled with poverty and is often a struggle to make ends meet. During our time in Cape Town we did a tour of Langa, their oldest township where a local guide took us through the life in a township. We were taken to areas where makeshift shacks could be seen between government built apartments and piles of discarded debris were scattered wherever we went.

Tasting barbequed sheep’s head in South Africa 2

45 minutes into the tour and my nose was tickled by a smoky smell that came just around the bend in the road ahead of us, a thin cloud of smoke was lazily making its way up into the clear blue midday sky. My heart beat faster as we came around the corner and there before me lying on an improvised table a cooked Smiley grinned at us with its hollow eyes as a mama (the equivalent term for aunt or older maternal figure) finished cooking it.

Tasting barbequed sheep’s head in South Africa 3

Tasting barbequed sheep’s head in South Africa 4

Just behind this lady, another makeshift table were raw sheep’s head, some with their horns still attached, while a few flies crawled over their expressionless faces. I now knew why people kept warning me against trying smileys, but it isn’t enough to stop me.

Tasting barbequed sheep’s head in South Africa 5

Tasting barbequed sheep’s head in South Africa 6

Handing over 40 rand ($5AUD) the mama gave us a cooked Smiley and our tour guide began cutting the meat from the skull. Despite its gruesome appearance it was delicious; the meat was soft with a slightly smoky taste and not tough as I was expecting it to be. After going for a second morsel, I drew up enough courage to try a bit of the lamb’s tongue which was chewier but the flavour remained the same.

I did stop however at attempting to eat the eyeball; I left that honour to our town guide who slurped up the glistening eyeball with glee. Once we had picked the skull clean of everything except the teeth we continued the tour and I can safely say that no one who had some of the smiley that day had any symptoms of food poisoning.

Written by: Kennross Obciana

Kennross Obciana – most of my adventures involve trying new food, meeting locals  and aimlessly wandering and exploring allowing the place to open up and reveal itself to him. To date one of my favourite moments on any trip that I’ve done was hiking part of the Otter trail in South Africa. The coastline was stunning and at the end being able to relax under a waterfall by a tannin coloured lake was simply refreshing.

Places: South Africa