Most of my mealtimes during my South Africa trip were spent looking at colleagues tuck into all varieties of meat, from ostrich to wildebeest, while I quietly ate the pasta or salad put in front of me. I did have one Indian dinner at The Ocean Terrace restaurant at the upmarket Oyster Box but that was a dubious “curry buffet” and not the most satisfying meal.
One of my most delightful Durban experiences came in the form of the bunny chow. Or bunny, as locals call it. For example, “Let’s go for a quick bunny lunch” (asking for “bunny chow” immediately marks you out as an outsider, I am told).
What is bunny chow?
Nothing to do with rabbits or indeed with any form of meat. It is simply a hollowed loaf of bread – usually a quarter – filled with curry that could be vegetables and kidney beans, chicken, lamb or mutton.
The origins of this dish are unknown, with many theories floating around. The most popular one is that Indian labourers working in the sugarcane plantations of Kwazulu Natal (a region in South Africa, of which Durban is the capital) found it difficult to carry an elaborate lunch with them. So, a clever housewife decided to make a one dish meal of bread and curry that can be eaten with the hands.
As for the name, it is believed to have originated from the word “bania” – although you will hear stories of this dish being invented by a Mr. Bunny from India! And for a bit of trivia: today, Durban has the largest Indian community outside India.
How is bunny chow made?
It is one of the easiest snacks to make – I should actually call it a meal, because a quarter loaf of bunny chow is enough to keep you going from lunch till dinner. And remember, the bunny chow was born out of a need for convenience.
So, here is the bunny chow in five easy steps:
And Bob’s your uncle! Or should I say, Bunny’s your chacha!
The National Geographic rates it among the top ten culinary experiences in Durban – as a vegetarian, I would go further and extend it to all of South Africa.
They also call it “lip-searing spicy curry” and perhaps by Western standards, the filling is a bit fiery. But certainly not by our palates conditioned by “Everest ka tikha lal” masalas. But I do agree with this bit in the article: “It’s hot, messy, and impossible to eat without using both hands and lots of napkins” – if you want to eat it daintily with a fork and spoon, you may as well forget it and go find something more amenable to cutlery.
Where should I try bunny chow?
Bunny chow is available everywhere in Durban, and these days, in other South African cities too. Locals swear by Goundens, although I tried it at The Oriental, which also came highly recommended. It is a small place inside a shopping mall, designed for a quick eat or take-away experience. The manager kindly allowed me into the kitchens with my camera once I expressed curiosity about the chow-making process.
I had the vegetarian version, with a generous filling of a curry (how I hate that word!) loaded with vegetables and rajma, and spiced gently with Indian masalas. I had a tough time managing the mess but hey, that’s part of the fun. And I have to say, this bunny was absolutely delicious.
The Wall Street Journal thinks highly enough of this “sloppy, savory, eat-it-with-your-hands Indian curry dish” to carry a piece on finding the best bunny chow in Durban.
So, if you ever head to South Africa, go find yourself a bunny.