Fried meat cubes on a stick: Chislic the pride of South Dakota

What would you say if I told you that there is a food in one of our states that is ubiquitous in that state, that everyone grew up with, that everyone still eats today — but that virtually no one in any other state has ever heard of?

You’d say “tell me about it,” and I will.

I’ve just initiated you into the mysteries of chislic, from South Dakota.

Let’s define it first. In its purest form, chislic is deep-fried cubes of meat, sprinkled with garlic salt, served with toothpicks and often accompanied by crackers. Some say it has to be Saltine crackers.

In my Flavored Nation search for the iconic dishes from all 50 states, all my South Dakota research kept turning up chislic asthe dish of that state. My curiosity was aroused, because from the basic description it was hard to see why chislic generates such local excitement.

So, I dug. I found a chef from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Sharea Holcomb, who loves chislic.

I asked, of course, “Why do YOU love chislic?”

Her answer was to the point: “What you grew up eating is what you continue to eat.”

Origin stories

While there’s not much of a South Dakota diaspora to spread chislic across the country, “diaspora,” however, might explain its origins.

Most theories connect it with emigrants from Russia, or the Caucasus, where skewered pork — known as shahslyk — was very popular.

“I have never ever seen the meat on a skewer in South Dakota,” says Holcomb. The histories say that a Crimean named John Hoellwarth somehow got it off the skewers in Hutchinson County in the 1870s.

“I’m not sure I believe it,” Holcomb says. “We have another story. A chef in Freeman (the South Dakota town that hosts a Chislic Festival every year) supposedly overcooked a lamb steak, chunked it up, threw it in the deep fryer and called it ‘chislic.’ I’m not sure I believe that one either, because good chislic is rare to medium-rare.”

But lamb sounds right, because southeastern South Dakota is livestock country, particularly sheep.

“The rest of the state seems to prefer beef, but most people in the Sioux Falls corner use lamb,” Holcomb said.

And you, Sharea?

“To tell you the truth,” she said, “I find lamb a little too strong-tasting. My dad, who made it for me as long as I can remember, used lamb but with a great deal of marinade (herbs, garlic, red-wine vinegar, etc.). I prefer it with less marinade.”

So you use beef?

“Nope. I make it with venison, which is also very popular in South Dakota. Fresh venison in game season, frozen venison the rest of the year.”

In fact, when Holcomb, who happens to be a huntress, comes to Flavored Nation in St. Louis in October, she’s hoping to have some of her own venison with her.

Changing chislic?

There are regional variations in chislic, but nothing too exotic. The main difference seems to be a light flour dredging in Sioux Falls, as opposed to a batter-coating in Pierre. In the Watertown area, ranch dressing may be served on the side. In the Redfield area, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt is de rigueur.

I asked Holcomb whether chislic is changing.

“Chislic will always be our state dish, and it will continue to be served in bars, pubs, informal restaurants, as well as every household in the state, for a long time. However,” she went on, “people are playing around with it. You might see BBQ sauce, or chili powder, or creamy Gorgonzola sauce, or even balsamic vinegar.”

Would you ever deviate from the basics? As the chef and catering director at the posh Country Club of Sioux Falls, she oversees a lot of weddings and says, “You caught me on a funny day. I made a test meal today for a couple who’s getting married soon. They wanted upscaled local food, so I made them beef chislic with sautéed onions, slow-roasted tomatoes and a red wine demi-glace.”

Et tu, Sharea?

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