What is bunny chow?
By Michelle Warwicker – BBC Food
Curry in a loaf? Bunny chow is a very popular street food dish in its home city Durban in South Africa
In Britain street food is no longer just about pies and fish and chips but a huge variety of cuisines, from Middle Eastern falafel to Argentinean empanadas. South African bunny chow is one of the latest dishes to join the rich variety on offer – but what is it?
Many people will not have heard of bunny chow. But after years on the other side of the world, it is now in Britain, found at a small number of restaurants and street food vendors.
Bunny chow has nothing to do with rabbits. And the origins of its unusual name are something of a mystery.
“Messy”, “crude” and “delicious” are all words associated with the spicy South African dish. It is made with a half or a quarter loaf of bread, hollowed out and filled with steaming curry cooked with meat or beans.
A traditional bunny chow (or simply “bunny” if you are in Durban in South Africa where the dish originated) is made with mutton, chicken, mince, lamb or kidney beans. The loaf is crusty enough to hold the saucy filling in a parcel, and the bread from the centre is placed on top to keep the curry warm and provide diners with something to scoop with.
Cheap, tasty and filling, bunny chow is one of the most popular takeaway meals in its home city.
It is sold in small diners and takeaway kiosks and is rarely even served with a fork. Customers can take delight in dipping the bread on top to scoop up the curry, tearing their way round the loaf until reaching the remaining, deliciously curry-soaked bread piece at the bottom.
Managing to eat the dish without mess takes practice and expertise.
“It is not something you’d find in a restaurant. It is definitely Durban street food,” says Annemarie Groenewald, owner of South African restaurant Jabula near Chester, who spent most of her adult life in Durban.
“It is very popular. It is a food on the go”. She compares it to British fish and chips – the dish comes in a brown paper bag and customers often enjoy it sitting on the beach.
Durban is home to a very large population of people of Indian ethnic origin, and the dish fuses Indian and African influences.
Bunny chow may owe its origins to the Indian immigrants who arrived in South Africa in the second half of the 19th Century to be put to work on sugar plantations.
Today bunny chow has spread to other South African cities, but the original and for many people the best is still found in Durban. The cheap, filling meal is often served to people living in the homeless shelters in the city who are not able to cook at home, according to Joe Scragg, who set up his bunny chow food stall business Stuffed in Bath after travelling in South Africa.
The waste-free potential of the meal inspired him to start selling it at festivals such as Glastonbury and as a street food.
“I serve it with a fork made of potato starch so there’s absolutely no waste come the end of the meal.” The only part of his product to be thrown away are the napkins he gives customers, because the bunny chow’s loaf acts “like an edible container”.
He says his food has attracted South African fans. “I get lots of South Africans coming up to me at different events just being so pleased to have seen it here.”
“It’s so strange it’s such a popular dish out there – it hasn’t made its way here at all.”
So will bunny chow take off in Britain, where places specialising in South African food are relatively hard to find.
Bunny chow is on the street food menu at Ms Groenewald’s restaurant, and she says it is popular with customers. But she believes her restaurant in Chester is the only one serving just South African food in the north west of England. There are plenty of restaurants in Britain serving North African cuisine, she adds.
Atholl Milton launched his company called Bunnychow in summer 2013 – funded by Shanti Hospitality – part of the C&C Alpha Group Ltd – hoping to pioneer bunny chow in Britain. At first he took the dish round London in a truck. He opened a permanent stall in November.
“The common misconception is [that it is] rabbit… we receive that a lot,” he says, explaining that his first challenge is to educate people as to exactly what bunny chow is.
Smaller portions and providing forks to avoid mess are two ways Mr Milton hopes to attract customers, particularly workers on lunch breaks looking for something tasty to take back to the office.
“People I think are tired of having a cold sandwich.”
He says his bunny chow “has been well received” and works well in winter “because of its heartiness – it’s quite filling, it’s warm”.
He plans to make an English version of the dish involving a cooked breakfast served in an English muffin. But first “we need to know if the market really is going to accept it”, he explains.
Mr Milton says there are also other awesome flavours in South African cuisine for Britain to explore.
There are “so many” distinctive South African dishes according to Margot Janse, an award-winning chef at fine-dining restaurant The Tasting Room in Franschhoek.
“South African cuisine is determined by its many cultures from straight forward meat, potato and rice, to sweet fragrant Malay curries and stronger Indian spiced food.”
“I love the fact that we still surprise people with our incredible produce and high standards of cuisine.”
“Game meat such as wildebeest and springbok are big here and I work on a bi-weekly schedule with a game farmer. He tells me what he can shoot and I hang it for two to three weeks.”
Another traditional South African dish is braai, a type of barbecue or grill which is a big part of food culture in some parts of Africa. And biltong is a cured meat snack enjoyed by many South Africans and which can be found in a number of delis and shops in Britain.
Annemarie Groenewald concedes that bunny chow is a dish that is not to everyone’s tastes. “It is not something that everybody most probably would enjoy because it is messy, unless you give them a knife and fork.”
“You have to eat it the way it should be eaten otherwise it’s not the real bunny chow.”
She does offer a fork to her customers but tells them the traditional way of breaking bunny chow with their hands will make it “taste a lot better”.
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