This coming week South Africa celebrates Heritage Day, which has come to be known by many as ‘Braai Day’. For some though, this moniker is viewed as exclusionary with boerewors, a popular meat for braais, being associated more with white, Afrikaans-speaking South Africans than other societal groups.
Tazneem Wentzel’s mini-thesis: Producing and Consuming the Wembley Whopper and the Super Fisheries Gatsby: Bread Winners and Losers in Athlone, Cape Town, 1950-1980 recently highlighted the relationship between the food that we consume and our political history. In her discussion Wentzel examines the history and significance of one of Cape Town’s most popular foods, the gatsby*:
To some extent I wondered…what kind of relationship there was between food, place, people and politics, keeping in mind that 1950 to 1980 was also the period in which apartheid flexed its racial muscle in every mundane aspect of life, from hair to food….Food was racialised. In my thesis I focus specifically on formations of bread. I read the Whopper and the gatsby as an archive that can be read against the state-subsidised bread production”, Tazneem Wentzel
A central location in Wentzel’s thesis is the Wembley Roadhouse, which owes its origins to Durban’s Blue Lagoon. The founder of the Wembley, Mr Gangraker, was due to return home from Durban, but missed his flight and asked his taxi driver to take him to a place for a bite to eat. The driver took Gangraker to one of the most well known eating-spots in Durban, Blue Lagoon.
It’s likely that on the menu that day would have been one of Durban’s most famous culinary exports, the bunny chow**. A popular takeaway food since the late 1940s, most people will be unaware of the history of this local curry. In fact, there seem to be a number of different versions of how the bunny chow came to be, but they all have one thing in common, and that’s the integral role that apartheid played in its invention. Described by one author as “a combination of Asian curry, European bread, and South African apartheid” the central theme in all the legends surrounding the bunny chow is that it was created in direct response to the South African government’s system of racial segregation.
One popular story is that the bunny chow was invented by restaurateurs from the Gujarati merchant caste, bania, as a means of serving their sizable black client base who were no longer allowed access to their restaurants. The hollowed out bread ‘bowls’ were surreptitiously served from back door takeaway hatches, with not even cutlery to give the game away – bits of bread were torn off and used as an implement to spoon the curry out.
A similar version of the story puts forward Kapitan’s Vegetarian Eating House, which now forms part of the Durban Liberation Heritage Route, as the inventor of the bunny chow. Traditional fare at Kapitan’s was a bean curry and a few slices of bread in a bowl, commonly known as a “penny bread and beans”. But with black customers not allowed access to the restaurant, and with no suitable takeaway packaging, the owner started selling quarter loaves of bread filled with curry, wrapped in newspaper and sold with a soft drink – traditionally cream soda – to cool the sting of the curry!
Another theory is that the bunny chow was an adaptation of a traditional Indian curry invented specifically for the Indian caddies at the Royal Durban Golf Course. The caddies were unable to get off work long enough to eat their lunch in Grey Street, so began to get their friends to buy the curry for them in the city. With no access to takeaway containers, the friends brought the curry in hollowed-out loaves of bread.
Yet another aspect of the story is the isolation South Africa experienced under the previous political regime:
And in terms of its rather peculiar name – how many tourists have expected to be served rabbit, we wonder?! The most popular version of the story offers ‘bunny’ as a mutation of the word, bania, the community of Indian merchants who were selling the popular takeaway. It’s normally assumed that the ‘chow’ is simply slang for ‘food’, but some people believe that it comes from the Hindi word ‘achar’, which is traditionally served as an accompaniment to curry. As bunny chow is often served with a pickled side salad, some say that the name comes from ‘bun achar’, a bread bun with achar on the side!
So for this year’s Heritage Day, why not celebrate the day with something that’s unique to Durban – our world famous bunny chows! The history of the bunny chow may be divisive but it’s definitely a meal that unites!
* A gatsby is a large submarine sandwich, typically sold as a foot-long roll cut into four portions, and served largely as a take-away.
** A bunny chow is a hollowed out bread bowl with a spicy curried filling. It also goes by the name ‘kota’, which refers to the quarter loaf of bread with which it’s commonly made.