Smiley - Gastro Obscura

Prepared Foods


The cooked South African sheep's head is named for its bared teeth.

On the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, people in the township of Langa make the most out of butchers’ leftovers. But even those accustomed to dining on brains might be surprised when they come face-to-face with these grinning decapitated sheep heads.

Affectionately dubbed “smiley,” this township specialty gets its signature look from the process of singeing the hair from the sheep’s head with a searing-hot metal rod. As the skin heats, dries, and shrinks, the animal’s lips pull back to reveal an ear-to-ear grin. While preparation varies, the head is usually cleaved along its length to remove the brain, then roasted over a fire or broiled in hot, drum-like ovens. Butchers might carve par-cooked meat off of the face for mixing into curry or for grilling in the South African barbecue style known as braai. Fully-roasted smiley can be picked apart by hand.

Because the cuts of meat that fetch the highest prices come from the neck down, smiley and other cranial specialties are part of a utilitarian approach to feeding one’s family. Using body parts such as the head can be an inexpensive and innovative way to add flavor and protein to dinner. The sheep’s eyes and tongue are especially flavorful. Be sure your smiley comes complete with these parts, or you’ve been robbed of prized cranial morsels.

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