When I was little we lived in Durban on the east coast of South Africa for a short time. Durban is home to one of the largest populations of Indian origin in the world, and they’ve had a significant influence on local food and culture.
Indians first came to Natal to work on sugar cane plantations as indentured labourers in the 1860s. They were soon followed by merchants who immigrated to the city and opened up businesses.
One dish synonymous with Durban is the perfect marriage of Indian and European ingredients, the ‘bunny chow’. A ‘bunny’ as it’s affectionately known, is a hollowed-out bread loaf filled with curry. The name comes from ‘bania’, the Sanskrit word for merchant.
There are a number of stories about the dish’s origins. One of the most common is that Bunny Chow came about during apartheid, South Africa’s twentieth century system of legalised racial segregation. Indian traders came up with the portable curry as a way to sell takeaway meals to black workers. Under apartheid, certain races were not allowed to mix or gather in public or to eat in some restaurants.
Another view holds that Indian caddies who were working at the Royal Durban Golf Course didn’t have time to get a curry for lunch. They would instead get friends to bring them lunch in a hollowed out loaf of bread, due to a lack of available of containers.
Today, bunnies are usually ordered by the quarter or half loaf. You’d have to have some appetite to polish off a half!
Bean curry bunny chow
1 cup borlotti beans
4 cups water
marrow bones (optional – for boiling with the beans)
2 tbsp ghee (substitute oil if you have no ghee to hand)
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
3 fresh curry leaves, whole
1 tbsp garam masala
½ tsp chilli powder
1 tsp turmeric
1½ tsp salt
1 medium capsicum (red or yellow, or a mixture of both), chopped
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp tamarind juice
1 loaf of unsliced white bread
¼ cup of coriander, roughly chopped
Soak the beans overnight or for eight hours.
Strain, rinse and place in a pot with four cups of water.
You can add some marrow bones to flavour the water if you like.
Boil until the beans are tender (about one and a quarter hours).
Remove from the heat, strain and keep the cooking liquid.
In another heavy-bottomed pot, heat the ghee on medium heat.
Fry the onions, garlic, ginger and curry leaves until fragrant.
Add the garam masala, chilli powder, turmeric and salt and fry for another minute.
Reduce the heat.
Add the chopped capsicum and fry for three minutes or until slightly softened.
Add the tomatoes and cook for about four minutes until they become tender and begin to get ‘saucy’.
When the tomatoes have softened, gently stir in the beans and fry for five minutes.
Pour in the tamarind juice and the stock you kept from cooking the beans.
Stir gently to combine.
Cook for another 15–20 minutes, until the curry has thickened.
Cut the loaf of bread into quarters.
Hollow out each piece with a spoon.
Try to remove the bread in one piece and leave enough at the bottom to create a ‘shell’ for the curry.
Fill the hollowed out quarters with the curry and sprinkle with the chopped coriander.
Place the bread you removed from each back on top or to one side.
Serve with a sambal or salad.