In South Africa, diets are changing. People in Africa’s biggest economy are increasingly embracing indigenous foods and recipes. After decades of looking to the developed world for their cuisine, many South African restaurants are placing traditional food on their menus. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Durban, the nation’s so-called “curry capital.”
Steam rises to the ceiling of the kitchen of the Britania Hotel, alongside a highway in Durban, the largest city on South Africa’s east coast. Noses twitch and run, sweat pearls on foreheads, eyes water. The air’s heavy with the bouquet of a medley of spices. Waiters and waitresses bark orders at the cooks. Food spills onto the floor. Pots and pans bang. Through it all, gigantic cauldrons of curry bubble like mediaeval witch’s brew.
Rebecca Moodley has worked here, “in the middle of this organized chaos,” for almost a decade. She’s the kitchen’s manager.
‘Nowhere else in the world….’
“At the moment our popular dish will be the mutton curry – but our bunnies are our best sellers,” Moodley announces. She laughs and says her “bunnies have got nothing to do with rabbits!” Rather, they’re a signature South African dish, a meal that’s gaining popularity as an economic recession bites and people search for cheap and filling food.
In Durban, fast-food eateries charge about US$ 2 for a quarter bread loaf packed with curry. As money gets ever tighter, middle class South Africans are joining construction workers and domestic servants in the queues for bunny chows.
In the Britania kitchen, Thembi Gcaba, a cook, ladles a scoop of fiery red mutton curry into a loaf of bread that’s been cut in half, its floury flesh torn out to create a hollow. She then uses the extracted dough to plug the hole on top of the sodden bread loaf to prevent the mixture from spilling.
“That’s it!” she exclaims. “A bunny chow.”
“Nowhere else in the world do they make bunnies, only in South Africa,” says Moodley proudly.
In his car in the hotel parking lot, Roger Govender, a taxi driver and tour guide, tucks into his favorite break time fare. Between gargantuan mouthfuls, he declares, “The Chinese built the Great Wall. The Americans landed on the moon. The Durban Indians created the bunny chow….”
The ‘Bhania chow’ and golf….
Legend has it that the simple recipe was invented as a response to apartheid. During racial segregation in South Africa, seats in Durban’s curry houses were reserved for white people. Hungry customers of other races were largely forced into getting take-outs. And so the bunny chow was born. It was easy to take away and even easier to eat just with the hands.
But Moodley says this tale “holds no water.” She maintains that it was a South African family of Indian origin, the Bhanias, who invented the bunny chow.
“In the old days, guys that used to play golf, they couldn’t go out to get a meal, so they used to send their caddies to go and purchase a meal for them. And the Bhania people used to take bread, cut it up and dig out the hollow of the bread and dish the curry into that and send it to the guys so that they could have a quick meal during their lunchtime,” Moodley tells VOA.
She says the way the food was served, right there on the putting green, eliminated the golfers’ need for knives and forks and still satisfied their appetite for good curry. The meal became known, Moodley maintains, as “Bhania chow,” which later became “bunny chow,” as this was “easier to pronounce.”
South Africans – and especially those living in Durban – have a particular fondness for curry, as the metropolis is home to the largest Indian population outside of India in any city in the world.
South Africans of Indian ethnicity now live all over the country, and wherever they’ve settled, they’ve brought their curry recipes with them.
A chief cook at the Britania, Sphumelele Chiliza, says Durban curry is “without a doubt” very different from curry available elsewhere in the world.
“Our chilies, dhania (coriander or cilantro), jeera (cumin seeds), cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, garlic, curry and bay leaf plants and pepper are all grown in our semi-tropical climate…. It all gives our spices a special flavor,” Chiliza says. “We import very little.”
“It is homemade spices that are mixed together that give us the good curry that we have,” Moodley agrees.
Roger Govender wipes bunny juice from his mouth with the back of his hand and reverses his taxi out of the hotel parking terrain. “Gotta have music!” he shouts, boosting his car radio’s volume, speeding into the highway exit, hands off the wheel, waving from side to side and singing along with the latest hit British/Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A.’s latest hit.
“I fly like paper, get high like planes, if you catch me at the border I got visas in my name!” Govender sings.
“I’ve been driving taxis for the last 20 years,” he says, grimacing as another vehicle swerves in front of him. “Idiot!” Govender shouts. “In all that 20 years,” he continues, “I’ve eaten thousands of bunny chows. And let me tell you,” he intones, like a wise old sage, “that a bunny is not a bunny unless it gives you ‘ring sting’! If you don’t suffer a bit, if your mouth – as well as other parts of the body; but I won’t mention them – don’t sting after you’ve eaten the curry, then the bunny’s no good.”
Govender jokingly insists that the “ring sting” reputation of Durban curry is famous – or rather, infamous – “all over the globe.” Smiling broadly, he says Johnny Cash, the great American country crooner, “even wrote a song about ring sting” – in reference to Cash’s single, “Ring of Fire.”
But Moodley differs with the taxi driver’s views about the tongue-numbing properties of Durban curry.
She says if a curry’s too hot, when too many chilies have been added, the food loses its flavor.
“You’re just getting hotness in your mouth. A curry shouldn’t taste like that at all. You should get the flavor of the meat and everything that’s put in, together,” Moodley says.
But hot or not, South Africa’s incomparable bunny chow is taking its place on tables across the country. From backyard township cafes, to shiny up-market restaurants, it’s a potent antidote to economic depression…and other maladies, according to Govender.
“A bunny a day will keep the doctor away!” he cackles. “And sometimes also your wife, if you add enough garlic.”
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