December 26 2021 update: Just 6 hours after I posted this, it was reported that the great Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace prize laureate who helped end apartheid in South Africa, has died aged 90. He will be sorely missed…
My Citizens! As promised in my previous post, My Christmas/Holiday gift to all of TFD Nation this day is to give you 3 recipes – a record here on TFD if ever there was one! 😀 I thought it important to include a recipe from South Africa today, as so many people have foolishly ‘blamed’ the country for being the ‘original source’ of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 currently sweeping the world. I have studied virology, Citizens – South Africa did all the right things reporting the new variant as quickly as they did, and then they got penalized worldwide for their diligence.
Let’s be clear – while it may indeed be that South Africa is the original ‘ground zero’ for Omicron, it could also have originated from a neighboring country with less testing resources that didn’t identify it before South Africa did. The world owes the South African Department of Health a HUGE thank you!
So – I am showing South African Citizens the holiday love with this recipe from the city of Durban, for a unique hybrid Afro-Indian curry recipe called ‘bunny curry’ (locals just call it bunny, you should too!) that contains nary a hint of rabbit anywhere within it – never fear, I shall explain its unusual sobriquet and its etymology as well! The curry is actually made with mutton or lamb or chicken, and is served in a hollowed-out loaf of cheap white bread.
Again, there is NO RABBIT in this recipe, though I wouldn’t mind adding one particularly ill-tempered rodent to the pot! I speak of nothing less than the bloodthirsty Rabbit of Caerbannog as seen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail!
The Rabbit of Caerbannog is a perfect metaphor for Bunny Chow – like the recipe it may look tame at first glance, but in fact it is in fact anything but. Unlike regular rabbits, the mouth of the Rabbit of Caerbannog was full of razor-sharp canines – it is surprisingly swift, violent, agile, deadly, aggressive, bloodthirsty, and carnivorous in close quarters…much like this curry. Don’t believe me – see for yourself!
Now, with this holiday sharing of My favorite scene from My favorite movie – onwards to the history and reason for bunny chow’s odd name!
Bunny chow, often referred to simply as a bunny, is a South African fast food dish consisting of a hollowed-out loaf of white bread filled with curry – it originated among Indian South Africans of Durban. Throughout various South African communities, one can find different versions of the bunny chow, which uses only a quarter loaf of bread and depending on which part of the country you are in, is sometimes called a scambane, kota (“quarter”) or Shibobo; it is a name that it shares with sphatlho, a South African dish that evolved from the bunny chow.
The Bunny chow was created in Durban, South Africa, which is home to a large community of Indian origin. The precise origins of the food are disputed, although its creation has been dated to the 1940s. It was also sold in Gwelo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during World War II and is still sold in the nearby town of Kadoma, formerly known as Gatooma.
Stories of the origin of bunny chow date as far back as the migrant Indian workers’ arrival in South Africa. One account suggests that said Indian laborers who came to work the sugar cane plantations of KwaZulu-Natal (Port Natal) required a way of carrying their lunches to the field; a hollowed-out loaf of bread was a convenient way to transport their vegetarian curries. Meat-based fillings came later. The use of a loaf of white bread can also be ascribed to the lack of the traditional roti bread as well as its weak structure; thus the cheap loaf, widely available at local stores, would be an optimal substitute vessel for the curry.
One story claims that a South African restaurant run by Banias (an Indian caste) first created the dish at a restaurant-café, called Kapitan’s, on the corner of Victoria and Albert streets in Durban – their caste name was mispronounced by non-Indians as ‘Bunny’ and the rest is history. Another tale opines that the origin of this handheld dish was due to Indian golf caddies not being allowed to publicly carry sharp cutlery like knives during apartheid. ““Chow” in South African English is simply slang for ‘food’ as well as the verb ‘to eat’.
There are a few restaurants that could be possibly credited with its invention: Manilal Patel, the owner of Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshment Room (which dates back to 1932), claims his father Ranchod was the first person to have made one for sale. The last owners of the original Victory Lounge (which opened in 1945 and closed in June this year), Billy and Kanagee Moodley credit an eatery called Kapitan’s; yet others Queens’s Tavern. The latter two have long closed, and with them, a part of the bunny chow’s origin story has been lost.
One aspect that all writers agree upon, however, is that South Africa’s oppressive racial segregation laws under apartheid strictly prohibited the mixing of races in public spaces and the sale of food to blacks by Indians and others. Patel’s and Victory Lounge defied that, selling to everyone, even if some customers couldn’t sit down to enjoy their meals. There’s also a possibility that the bunny chow, a convenient way to transport a meal without a container, was invented in local homes and simply copied and sold cheaply by takeout shops to laborers, golf caddies and those who couldn’t take a long lunch break.
Bunny chows are popular amongst Indians and other ethnic groups in the Durban area. Bunny chows are commonly filled with curries made using traditional recipes from Durban: mutton or lamb curry is the most popular by far. Bunny chows are often served with a side portion of salad containing grated carrot, chili and onion.
Commonly known as sambals, this includes chopped tomatoes, onions, and green chilies served with white vinegar. Other sides include Indian pickles, such as mango pickle, lime or lemon pickle, vegetable pickles and other seasonal varieties which are pickled. A key desirable characteristic of a bunny chow is seen when gravy from the curry fillings soaks into the walls of the bread. Sharing a single bunny chow is not uncommon.
Bunny chows come in quarter, half and full loaves. When ordering a bunny chow in Durban, the local slang dictates that you need only ask for a “quarter mutton” (or flavor and size of your choice); colloquially, people would say, “Can I have a quarter mutton bunny?” Bunny chows are mainly eaten using the fingers; it is unusual to see locals use utensils when eating this dish. Bunny chows were historically packaged in the previous day’s newspaper. This is no longer common, and takeaway bunnies are more typically sold in ‘bunny boxes’ which retain heat and prevent leaks from the curry.
Bunny chows are available in many small takeaways and Indian restaurants throughout South Africa. Each year, the ‘Bunny Chow Barometer’ is held in September on the south bank of the Umgeni River, just above Blue Lagoon (a popular Sunday picnic spot for Durban Indians), attracting numerous entrants from across the Durban Metro region to compete for the title of top bunny maker.
This curry is traditionally made with mutton, which I have found to be nearly impossible to find in this country outside of Owensboro, KY (where it is used in their hyper-regional BBQ) – so, I recommend lamb instead. Durban curry powder is an ESSENTIAL part of this recipe, and nobody makes it the same way! Most versions use 4-6 spices – I use what is considered the ultimate number of spices that the best blends should aspire to – 12, to be exact!
You can buy low-heat Kashmiri chili powder, Piri Piri powder (made from a VERY hot African chili!) and Ceylon cinnamon sticks at the links. I also layer in a whole different flavor profile by using some commercially-made Madras curry powder – this is my go-to blend! Buy fresh curry leaves from here.
Citizens, feel for the people of South Africa as they battle the twin scourges of Omicron and HIV and remember the world owes them a debt of gratitude for sharing their discovery of Omicron within the country’s borders – that courage is what motivates TFD to offer a heartfelt salute and thanks on this Christmas day!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
The Hirshon South African Durban ‘Bunny Chow’ Lamb Curry
- The Hirshon Durban Masala:
- 6 Tbsp. Kashmiri chili powder (get the reddest you can find)
- 1 Tbsp. Piri Piri chili powder (cayenne cayenne is a poor but acceptable substitute)
- 1 Tbsp. coriander seeds
- 1 Tbsp. cumin seeds
- 1 1/2 tsp. cardamom seeds (if you can’t buy the seeds, buy green cardamom pods and shell them)
- 1/2 Tbsp. Ceylon cinnamon sticks, broken into small pieces
- 1/2 Tbsp. fenugreek seeds
- 1/2 Tbsp. fennel seeds
- 1/2 Tbsp. ground ginger
- 2 cloves
- 2 bay leaves
- Several large curry leaves (to taste)
- For the curry:
- 2 1/4 lb. leg of lamb or shoulder, trimmed and cubed (TFD prefers leg)
- 5 Tbsp. neutral oil
- 1 onion, peeled and diced
- 2 cloves
- 2 Ceylon cinnamon sticks (each 4″ long)
- 3 heaping Tbsp. Durban masala blend
- 3 heaping tsp. medium-strength curry powder (TFD strongly prefers Sun brand Madras curry powder)
- 1 tsp. Kosher salt
- Scant 1/8 tsp. liquid hickory smoke (very optional TFD addition – omit for classic curry, but I truly love it in here)
- 1 tsp. crushed garlic
- 1 tsp. ginger paste
- at least 4 whole curry leaves (use up to a whole sprig if you really enjoy its flavor – I do!)
- 1 tsp. whole fennel seeds
- 2 cups homemade or low-salt store-bought beef stock (divided in 1/2) (TFD change, original called for water)
- 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut in half
- 1 medium tomato, skinned and diced or grated
- Cilantro leaves, for garnishing
- Make the Durban masala by gently heating the whole spices in a dry skillet until fragrant, then grind to a powder in a clean spice grinder. Combine with powdered spices – stored in an air-tight container, it will last for a few months.
- Wash the cubed meat and drain the water.
- Heat oil and add diced onion, cloves and cinnamon sticks.
- Add the Durban masala and Madras curry powder, stir and add meat to the pot.
- Add salt, garlic and ginger, curry leaves and fennel seeds. Stir all ingredients together.
- Allow to cook on a high heat for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add one cup of the beef stock and continue cooking for 30 minutes.
- As excess water and juices evaporate, add the additional cup of stock, followed by the potato and tomato.
- After 30 minutes, add the liquid smoke and simmer on high heat for 5 minutes. Taste – feel free to adjust the spice level to your preference with more Durban masala and/or Madras curry powder.
- Garnish with cilantro and serve with rice, roti and carrot salad.
- Cutting out the inside of the quarter loaf is pretty much self explanatory, but it is putting in the curry which is the art. The trick is to take a ladle and first pour gravy down the sides of the inside of the loaf, taking care to use the ideal ratio of gravy and oil to your taste so as to soak the bread to your preferred consistency. Then you can add a smallish piece of potato and start spooning your curry into the bunny. Once you have filled your bunny, then spoon some gravy over the top and down the sides of the bunny. Use your hands to eat, as the Durbanites do!
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i do love a curry in any form—this sounds delicious, and new to me. i actually can sometimes get mutton locally, so maybe this would be a proper use of it.
thanks for showing SA some love to offset the ignorant nastiness *some* people have vocalised. 🙂
Navajo mutton is available online. Be careful with halal “mutton”. It’s usually goat.
I’ve been trying to source genuine mutton for YEARS – can I trouble you for a link to your source, please?! 🙂