The great South African streetfood collision : How Mrs Balls and Gandhi met by accident on a plate.

30 Dec

This week a friend of ours arrived from South Africa armed with two giant jars of Ms Balls Chutney. I was thrilled. It has been years since last I have had the distinct pleasure of Mrs Balls in the  kitchen.  I started thinking about how best Mrs Balls could be utilised. A  simple cheese and chutney sandwich ?  A Durban curry ?  A Bunny Chow ? How about a lekker bazaar vetkoek ‘n mince – better known in South Africa as a Curry Bunny?

Though I cannot think of anyone I know who would actually have the nerve to serve bunny chow or Vetkoek to even vaguely respectable house guests, I plucked up courage and decided this was exactly what was going onto our dinner table for Saturday night with the visitors. The gold-rimmed plates would be filled with giant vetkoek, stuffed with authentic Durban curry, instead of the pretentious wannabe spread of la cuisine française .

Splash of History
Though there are various accounts of the origins of the Bunny Chow, it is safe to say that it originates from the Durban area, around the time of the great depression, and it was a way to have a cheap meal served in an edible container. The word bunny chow comes from Bania, (an Indian Caste), and chow, slang for chinese food.

Click to find out how to bunny chow

The first place to commercially sell Bunny Chow was the G.C. Kapitan Vegetarian Restaurant which operated in Grey Street, Durban between 1912 and 1992. Whether the bunny was invented or simply perfected there , G.C. Kapitan’s beans bunny was famous and enjoyed by ordinary people and such luminaries as Indira Gandhi and I imagine every Reddy, Govender, Botha or Smith that happened to frequent that part of town. Nowadays bunny chows have not really shaken off its peasant image, though, like pap en wors, you may well encounter it cellophane wrapped at the local supermarket, next to the foil encased pies and ready for the micro pasta dishes.

As  for Curry Bunnies, you will find these at the most greasy food counter anywhere near a train station, downtown cafe or, most curiously,  Afrikaner Church bazaar  or school fete.

Vetkoek (pronounced FET-cook) is a traditional Afrikaner ‘pastry’. It is dough deep-fried in cooking oil and either filled with cooked mince (ground beef) or spread with syrup, honey, or jam.

So the Saturday mealplan  started coming together :  Real labourer’s food eaten by really broke men (I have to confess Ive never seen a woman – rich or poor, and a bunny chow at the same table.) . Somehow our Saturday Spread would not be unlike sitting next to a chiseled farm laborer breaking for lunch after felling 12 foot high cane on a Kwazulu sugar plantation, tearing with his bare dirty hands at the crisp crust of  a fresh white bread . The bread casing is supposed to serve the same purpose as a lunchbox container and in the absence of eating utensils, theoretically this is the perfect green meal. Nothing to wash, recycle or throw away.

The curry took about 90 minutes, and in the absence of square government loaf, I compromised the bread encasement by using vetkoek. Soon enough everyone was happily tearing through the whole dripping  affair making happy eating noises.  Though I did not bother with the silverware, the gold rimmed fine bone china was definitely not going to be spared, so I forced everyone to eat from plates – Authentic green, containerless spicy peasant food is one thing,  scrubbing yellow curry stains from an egg colored  Damask tablecloth bought from a souk in Syria, quite another.


Durban Curry (Serves 4, twice!)

(Adapted from this recipe)

  • 1 loaf bread, white, fresh, unsliced, flat-topped

Whole spices

  • 2 star anise
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 2 onions roughly chopped

Fine spices

  • 3 tablespoons curry powder or marsala
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • a pinch of cayenne pepper / ground dried chilli powder (more if you want it hot)
  • 2 teaspoons turmeric

The meat

  • 3 tomatoes, medium, chopped
  • 1 kg meat – mutton / beef / chicken (mutton is usually used for a bunny chow )
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons chopped ginger
  • 3 potatoes, large, in cubes
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • a handful of peas or green beans, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon peanut butter
  • 2 tablespoons Ms Balls Chutney or any chutney (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon tomato sauce.
  • cilantro (optional)



Before starting, dry the meat with a kitchen towel and brown in a tablespoon or two vegetable oil. Set Aside

  1. Fry all the ingredients listed under “Whole Spices” until the onion becomes transparent.
2  Add the list called “Fine Spices”. ” Stir and fry until the spices stick to the bottom of the pot.
3  Now add the tomatoes, and stir until everything sticking to the pot bottom comes loose.
4  Add the meat, ginger, garlic.
5 Simmer for 45 mins- 1 hour, or until the meat is almost tender. (If you are using chicken skip this step)
6 add a little water, the veggies, potato cubes tomato sauce and peanut butter. (if using, add chicken) Simmer at least another 20 minutes or until meat is very tender. (add water if things start looking dry)
7 When the meat is tender,  add some chopped cilantro (dania/corriander leaves) stir through. You could also add a teaspoon of minced garlic, just before serving, this really brings out the flavor.
Condiments (Sambal):
Use small bowls filled with a variety of the following sambals : Chopped banana or mango, chutney, raisins, chopped cilantro/coriander, / chopped tomato and onion in a vinegar-sugar dressing (use 2 teaspoons sugar for every 2 tablespoons vinegar), dried coconut.
 Making it into a Bunny Chow :
Using a very fresh loaf  of white bread, you could cut the bread across into two, three or four even chunks, depending on how hungry the eaters will be.
Whatever you decide, with a sharp knife cut out most of the soft white bread, leaving a thick wall and bottom. Keep the bread you removed.
Ladle the curry into the hollows, and then put back on top the bread you removed. You could use this bread to help eat the curry, as “this is ALWAYS eaten with the hands”.
Making it into a Curry Bunny
Using ready made dough (bread) from the supermarket, flour your hands, tear off a chunk slightly bigger than a golfball and roll between your hands. Flatten into a disk, flour the disk well, and lay on a well floured tray. Once the dough is all used up, place the tray with the disks in a dry warm place (I use the oven.) to leaven for at least an hour. (the dough should double in size)
Heat up about a litre of cooking oil in a large pot (there should be enough oil for the disks to float freely). The oil should be fairly hot – test it by throwing in a pinched piece of dough. It should immediately bubble when it hits the oil. Using a spatula carefully lift the leavened rolls from the tray and gently lower into the hot oil. You need to be quite careful, as you do not want the rolls to deflate when getting them off the tray.  Fry for about a minute, or until the bottom turns a deep brown. Turn over and do the same on the other side. Remove to a mesh or drain on kitchen towels. Let the vetkoek rest for at least 5 mins before serving.
To serve, cut the vetkoek in half, but stop somewhere in the middle to make a pocket. Make space at the bottom of the vetkoek, and fill with the curry and various helpings of the sambalfor extra taste.
Something to drink please…
Though you can serve this with whatever drink you like, I got to say it goes extremely well with a ice cold sweet, but not too sweet, iced mint tea. Alternatively, tea, made the indian or english way, served strong and hot, with a cloud or two of milk.

One Response to “The great South African streetfood collision : How Mrs Balls and Gandhi met by accident on a plate.”

  1. Ilze Nel-Marais June 1, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

    If I were ever to come to Bangkok, I will look you up for a personal tour of all the market stalls and street vendors. I love your writing style! And after each blog entry I read I was salivating for the delicious treats you were describing. The blog post about the Ramona bakery conjured up memories of my own childhood days, frequenting a small “kaffee” with my mom. Keep on eating, exploring and writing! Love from the beautiful South – Paarl. X X X Ilze

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