Usually, Sunday night dinners when I was growing up consisted of scrambled eggs with fried salami, canned corn on toast, and any other leftovers that we happened to rescue from the back of the fridge. But every so often, the kitchen would fill with the unmistakable aroma of frying onions, chutney, and tomato sauce. My mom would stir the pot on the stove, while my dad would go outside to check on the meat.
It was Monkeygland night at our house, and no matter how much of the delicious sauce we piled on our steak and chips, we could never get enough of the tangy goodness.
At this point, you’re probably thinking something like, “Monkeygland? Did I read that right? How gross!” I thought exactly the same thing when my South African parents introduced it to me, but when they reassured me that the sauce didn’t have any monkey body parts in it, I decided that I would give it a try. And I was glad I did.
Given its name, the ingredients for Monkeygland sauce are quite common; you’ll probably be able to find most of them in your own kitchen. While researching this piece, I was surprised to learn that there are hundreds of recipes for Monkeygland.
Almost all of them call for fried onions, tomato sauce, and chutney, and wine of some kind, but others contain ingredients that I never would have thought of, such as soy sauce, mayonnaise, mustard, ginger, and even peaches.
At our house, we prefer to keep things simple. Our recipe calls for onions, Worcestershire sauce, tomato sauce, Mrs. Ball’s chutney, and Manochevitz wine.
How the Sauce Originated
Just as there are a variety of recipes for Monkeygland, there seem to be almost as many stories to explain how the dish and its name originated. The most common explanation is that in the early 1950s’, the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg hired French chefs to cook for its wealthy white clients. The chefs were disgusted by the diners’ lack of appreciation for haute cuisine and their insistence on ordering steak and slathering it in ketchup.
One day, in desperation, the chefs threw together all the commercial sauces they could find and called their concoction “Monkeygland.” The guests were accustomed to eating foods with a similar sweet-and-sour taste. They loved the new sauce, and the name stuck.
However, according to an article in a South African newspaper, this explanation, though plausible, is untrue. Monkeygland was actually invented twenty years earlier at the Savoy Hotel in London. At that time, one of the hotel’s regular guests was e Voronoff (1866-1951), who believed that he could restore virility in men by grafting monkey’s glands into their skin.
An Italian maître d’ at the hotel named a special steak dish after him. Soon after, Bagatta came to work in Johannesburg and introduced his new creation to the diners at the Carlton Hotel. In 1947, Bagatta served the dish to King George and Queen Victoria at a national banquet in Pratoria, and the sauce soon became a South African favorite.
So next time you’re feeling a little tired of boring old A1 sauce, why not chop up some onions, pop open a bottle of wine or sherry, and whip up some Monkeygland sauce? If nothing else, you’ll have an interesting story or two to tell your dinner guests. Who knows? They might even be begging you for the recipe.
No actual monkeys were harmed in the writing of this article.
Tasha Chemel is an American daughter of South African parents and a writer for ZiiBest.com, an international food blog and resource for finding international foods online, including where to buy South African food online.