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.
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.
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
- 2 star anise
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1/2 cup oil
- 2 onions roughly chopped
- 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
- 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
- Fry all the ingredients listed under “Whole Spices” until the onion becomes transparent.