Jerky was first introduced by the South American (Peru) native tribe called the Quechua (part of the ancient Inca Empire) in 1550. The product (Ch’arki), was boned and defatted meat (deer, elk, or buffalo) cut into slices and rubbed with salt. This meat was rolled up in the animal’s hide for 10-12 hours and then sun dried or smoked over fires.
In South America, the Native Americans ate sun-dried venison and buffalo called tassajo, which was made with strips of meat dipped in maize flour, sun and wind dried, and then tightly rolled up into balls. North American Cree Indians mixed berries and suet (fat) with pounded cooked meat and pressed into concentrated small cakes to make pemmican.
Biltong came from pioneering South African forefathers who sun dried meat while traveling across the African subcontinent. Folklore has it that African tribesmen would place strips of venison under the saddles of their horses to tenderize and spice the meat! Seasoning became a blend of vinegar, salt, sugar, coriander and other spices.
The Indians and early settlers dried meat primarily from deer, elk or buffalo using salt, whatever spices they had and sun drying. As the Spanish arrived, the name evolved to charqui. Most travelers preferred to pound the charqui between large stones and boil it in water before eating. During ocean exploration and colonization, the Spanish sailors stocked the pacific islands with goats. What couldn’t be eaten would then be cut into strips and hung in their ships to air dry. When the Spanish Conquistadors invaded the Americas, they were surprised to see the natives of North America drying meat as well. Soon, the natives adopted the Spanish term, Charqui, only adding their accent; the word “jerky” first came to be.
North American Pioneers would first dry meat by hanging it on the outside of their covered wagon sun drying (2-3 days). Another method was to build a scaffold over a slow fire and smoke the strips. While the heat and smoke would complete the process in half a day, the smoking method required a stopover; it wasn’t long before awareness for disease and germs became prevalent and smoking became the norm.
Today jerky is made from thin strips of virtually any meat or from ground or chopped and formed meat. Manufacturers spice and dehydrate the product; some introduce smoke or using liquid smoke for flavoring.