Ask a South African to name just one dish that evokes the sometimes quirky fusion of indigenous, colonial and immigrant cultures behind this nation’s famous “rainbow cuisine” and, surely, bunny chow would be there near the tip of her tongue. A spicy curry in a large portion of hollowed-out white loaf, this Durban specialty comprises a filling imported by Indian slaves and their descendants, served in an edible vessel made of an Afrikaans staple, the two happily joined together by necessity. A perfect combination of the exotic and the practical.
The true origins of the “bunny” (no South African would use the full name) are hotly disputed, but one leading theory says it was invented by Durban restaurateurs from an Indian caste known as the Bania, who served it as a takeaway to Indians forbidden by apartheid from dining in. Another says it was originally sent out to Indian caddies at the Royal Durban Golf Club for similar reasons; yet another says it was simply the best way Indian cane cutters could think of to take their curry to work for the day.
Wherever the idea came from, Bania chow (“chow” from the local Chinese) caught on, and a range of versions emerged besides the original vegetarian. These days everyone loves their bunny, and it’s even served in restaurants.There are many other stories in this melting pot at the end of the rainbow. One is told by the ubiquitous dried meat biltong and the braai, or barbecue: evocative of the customs of the local Khoekhoe and San tribe’s people relied upon by white settlers and trekkers and now enjoyed at any opportunity by South Africans of every color. Another by boerewors, or “farmer’s sausage”, a legacy of German settlers who, with largely Dutch and French immigrants, formed Afrikaner ancestry. And another by the myriad delicious, fragrant dishes introduced by Cape Malay slaves.
There are many other stories in this melting pot at the end of the rainbow. One is told by the ubiquitous dried meat biltong and the braai, or barbecue: evocative of the customs of the local Khoekhoe and San tribe’s people relied upon by white settlers and trekkers and now enjoyed at any opportunity by South Africans of every color. Another by boerewors, or “farmer’s sausage”, a legacy of German settlers who, with largely Dutch and French immigrants, formed Afrikaner ancestry. And another by the myriad delicious, fragrant dishes introduced by Cape Malay slaves.
History appears to be a heady ingredient in most dishes South Africans call their own. In fact, you could say modern South Africa was shaped by the need to eat. The Dutch East India Company, needing a stopover for its spice traders en route to Java in the mid-1600s, planted a farm at the southern tip of Africa. It brought slaves from Indonesia, Malaysia and Madagascar to work in the fields; those slaves brought their own ways with food, and Cape Malay cuisine was born. After the Dutch came the French, the British and the Germans, and sugar farmers bringing Indian slaves to cut cane. South Africa now has the largest population of Indians outside the subcontinent, and India has a presence in the national cuisine to match. Meanwhile, aboriginal African communities have shared aspects of their traditional diet: game, root vegetables and wild greens, berries, protein-rich insects, millet, sorghum and the all-important maize.
A large proportion of South Africa’s arable land is planted with maize (corn), which was grown by tribes across southern Africa long before colonial times. White trek-farmers and voortrekkers, pushing north from the Cape, came to rely on it in the 19th century and it is still a staple. Each indigenous community has its own ways with maize, but popular dishes include mieliepap (maize porridge); fresh mielies, roasted and eaten on the cob; and umngqusho (dried and broken white corn kernels, or samp, combined with beans). Maize is also mixed with sorghum and yeast to make umqombothi, a popular beer.
Curries, biriyanis, pakoras, sweets and chutneys… Indian cookery has long been a large and welcome presence in South African food culture. The classic cookbook Indian Delights, published in 1961 by the Women’s Cultural Group of Durban and reprinted many times, even pronounces curry and rice as a national dish. And thanks to its large Indian population, Durban has the nation’s best street food: from bunnies and samosas to the bright pink milkshake known as the Bombay Crush.
Cape Malay curries, spicy but milder than their Indian counterparts, are served with an array of condiments such as sambals and atjars. Bredie is a spiced stew of meat and vegetables, typically featuring spices including cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves and chilli. Sosaties – from “sesate” (skewered meat) and “sate” (spicy sauce) – are chunks of meat marinated in fried onions, chilies, garlic, curry leaves and tamarind, skewered and grilled over flame. And bobotie, often described as a superior shepherd’s pie, features curried mince meat with a topping of savoury custard.
The marinated and salted dried meat biltong is usually made with beef, though ostrich, springbok and other red meats are also popular. Biltong, which is flavoured with salt, pepper, coriander, sugar and cider vinegar, arose from the need to preserve meat in the early days of white settlement but is now widely enjoyed as a snack at any time (some say it’s a necessity when watching the rugby!). Boerewors are sausages made with coarsely ground beef or pork and spices including coriander, pepper and allspice. They are traditionally formed into a spiral, cooked on the braai and serve with mieliepap. Dried boerewors are known as droewors and eaten in the same way as biltong. Potjiekos is a meat-and-vegetable stew slowly cooked in a three-legged cast-iron pot over coals. In the days of the trek farmers, the stew would be made in camp; when it was time to move on, the pot (its contents protected by a thick layer of fat) was hooked under the wagon, ready to be heated at the next stop. Sweets include the Dutch melktert (“milk tart”, a type of custard pie); Malva pudding, a steamed sponge with sauce of butter, sugar and cream; and koeksisters (from the Dutch koekje, meaning cake), a deep-fried, syrup-coated pastry.