I associate bunny chow with my student years. These were carefree years but also troublesome. South Africa during the 1980’s was in the midst of its darkest period. The townships were in turmoil. The state was militarized. People were detailed illegally and without trial. They were killed. Many mysteriously slipped on soap and fell from the windows of secret interrogation rooms. Unassisted and purely by accident it was claimed.
We learned new words to describe some of the most horrific actions ever taken against human beings: neck-lacing, state of emergency, total onslaught, sanctions, disinvestment and Civil Cooperation Bureau to list but a few. Suddenly, Caspir was no longer a friendly ghost, and Buffels roamed the township streets and not the wild. And there was no international sport. A decade or so earlier an annoyed John Voster proudly proclaimed: “if the rest of the world does not want to play with us, we’ll play with ourselves”. And so they did.
Such were the times of my first bunny chow. Half a loaf of white bread hollowed out and filled with piping hot beef curry. Just so, just perfect. A product of its time and a symbol of human ingenuity and entrepreneurship.
The story of the bunny chow is the story of segregated South Africa.
Legend has it that the bunny chow originated in the South African port city of Durban. Indian nationals arrived there during the early 1900’s in two forms: either as indentured laborers (coolies) or as traders paying their own way to the New Country (passengers). The latter group, perceived to be of higher class than the former, looked for new beginnings in commerce or trade.
The trader or commerce caste in India is known as banias and sometime after their arrival in South Africa, all Indian food became popularly known as bania-food. It is now generally accepted that the “bunny” in bunny chow is a corrupted reference to bania. “Chow” is an old slang word for food. Bunny chow – bania-food.
Indian dishes were served in small restaurants catering mainly for customers of Indian descent. Apartheid legislation prevented these restaurants from serving customers from different racial groups. Wily bania-restaurateurs thus devised a way to serve mainly black clients looking for a delicious curry.
It had to be served hot and quick. Plates and utensils had to be avoided, as customers would have to return it at some point increasing the risk for detection. And so someone stumbled on the idea of serving the curry in a loaf of bread. The bread doubled as plate and cutlery. Perfect.
I suppose if the authorities of the day really wanted to arrest bunny chow eaters, they could have identified them from the curry stains on their fingers, much like they used to identify protesters by their purple stains caused by dye sprayed from water canons during the 1980’s.
I have no evidence that bunny chow eaters were ever arrested back then, but I know that today bunny chows can be consumed with total freedom. Eat it on the street or in the park. Eat as many and as often as you like, and remember you no longer have to sneak to the back door to pick up your order.
So please go ahead. Explore the bunny chow. Change your filling. Make it vegetarian. Add achar or chutney. Put it in brown bread, or if you have to, even in sweet yellow raisin bread. But please, never, ever serve it as a curry on a plate.
I make my bunny chows with Gheema (beef steak) curry. Use either rump or sirloin, but make sure the steak is not ripened. I use red leaf masala, but you could also use any other red masala. Remember, the more red the color, the hotter the masala.