As the temperature sinks in Johannesburg and the sun begins to set early, my Facebook newsfeed is flooded with bright and cheerful posts from the northern hemisphere. Friends on the other side of the Equator have suddenly sprung to life after the winter hibernation, hitting the parks for picnics, biking around the countryside, and even taking early summer dips in what must still be really chilly waters. There’s also plenty of photographic evidence of outdoor cooking over hot coals.
South Africans are very serious about barbequing, and I am sure outdo just about any other nationality in perfecting the art of grilling food over fire. We don’t call it barbeque, but a braai (rhymes with cry). The word is Afrikaans for ‘roast’, but the activity is probably the most cross-cultural in this very multi-cultural nation. From the villa gardens in the leafy suburbs to the township backyards, weekend air fills with lingering smoke pretty much all year around. It is so much part of the national identity that the National Heritage Day on 24 September has taken the second name National Braai Day, with archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu as patron.
Most braais in South Africa are ‘bring-and-braai’, in which you basically bring as many guests as you like and enough meat, sides and drinks for all. It’s the perfect party set up, and as inclusive as the cooking practice itself. There are very defined gender roles around the coals however. Men do the braaing, while women prepare the pap (corn polenta), potato salad, Greek salad, chakalaka and other sides in the kitchen. There’s usually plenty of beer, wine and cider stacked in a big bucket of ice, and often a good idea to warn newcomers to South Africa to pace themselves as braais tend to start at lunchtime and finish way after dark.
Apparently, the golden rule amongst the men that gather around the actual fire is not to interfere with the work of the braai master. The braai master is firmly in charge, and no advice is welcome. I watched this rule being applied with great strain at a braai in Cape Town not so long ago, when an American family had invited a group of South Africans and proceeded to braai the meat wrapped in foil on top of the coals. From the skeptical frowns around the braai, it was clear the South Africans had to muster considerable internal control to stick to the etiquette (it should be added the meal was delicious).
My favourite side dish is the chakalaka, a spicy bean stew based on baked beans in tomato sauce. These days you can buy ready-made canned chakalaka, but it’s obviously much better to make your own. The recipe below is from Chef Mimi of Lebo’s Backpackers in Soweto that organize wonderful braais for their guests with a full spread of different meats, boerewors (top quality beef/mixed meat sausages spiced with coriander and other spices), mealies (corn cobs), salads and – of course – chakalaka.
For readers in the northern hemisphere I recommend adding it to your barbeque repertoire for a bit of African flavor, and once your summer sun ends in September come join us this side for National Braai Day.
Chef Mimi’s Chakalaka, family portion
- 10 small grated carrots
- 1 green pepper, diced
- 2 onions, diced
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 2 fresh chilies, minced
- 1 can of baked beans
- 1 tablespoon of spicy curry powder
- Vegetable oil for frying
Heat up the vegetable oil in a pot, then turn down the temperature to medium and add the onions, garlic, green pepper, chilies and curry powder and fry gently. Do not let it brown as the curry may turn bitter.
Add the carrots and continue to fry on medium heat until all vegetables are soft. Add a little water if need be. Once the vegetables are golden add a pinch of salt and let the mixture cool.
Stir in the can of baked beans in tomato sauce, and serve with pap.
When you do come to visit Joburg make sure you visit Lebo’s Backpackers – it’s my top tip for any visitor to town. Lebo, his wife Maria and their team pioneered bicycle tours in Soweto and have transformed Lebo’s childhood home into one of the coolest hotels in the city and a sunny spot of fun and activity for tourists and neighbors alike. And you can enjoy some really genuine South African food there.