A heaping serving of slop, Bunny Chow is the South African bread bowl to America's melting pot and a nod to South Africa's diversity. Nothing to do with rabbits or Hef's favorite snack, this cultural mash-up is one part Asian curry, one part Euro-bread and one part apartheid.
The Dutch East India Company started bringing enslaved Indonesians and Malaysians (and with them, aromatic herbs) to South Africa in the late 17th century. A couple hundred years later, boatloads of Indians cruised in and started working the sugarcane plantations. By the time the 20th century rolled around, Malay and Indian flavors were a cornerstone of South African cuisine. Every urban corner had its curry spot, where the spicy, saucy goodness came with a few slices of one of the Europeans' key edible legacies, bread. South African Indians were often called bunias or banias (an Indian merchant caste), which morphed the name of their preferred grub into "bunny chow."
So, what genius combined curry and carbs? Some say Indian migrant workers used hollowed-out bread as a "to go" container to carry curries to the field for lunch.
Others say the bunny was born in the city. As South African society turned up the racist dial, laws of segregation known as apartheid kept blacks from sitting down at restaurants. They could go for take-out, but this was before the age of disposable dishes, and manhandling piping hot meat isn't quite as fun as it sounds. Supposedly, one clever cook in Durban (the largest city of the KwaZulu-Nata region) came up with a solution. He hollowed out a loaf of bread, poured in the curry and replaced the doughy innards on top, creating one of South Africa's strongest take-away traditions.
Today, bunny chows are huge in South African fast food shops and food carts, particularly around Durban. The price ranges from roughly R6 for a quarter dhal or beans, R20 for a quarter chicken, R30 for a half chicken and up to R50 for the whole beast, depending on how you're stuffing it.
Thinking of going down the rabbit hole?
Though the original bunny chows were vegetarian, carnivores threw in their meaty recipes over time. Popular versions include mutton, lamb, chicken, bean and chips with curry gravy. The curry must have ample liquid to soak into the bowl. Without the liquid-soaked bread portion of the dish, you've got yourself a dead bunny. They tend to be hot (as in chili hot).
A simple, Wonderbread white is the way to go. The chowmaker cuts the loaf in half or quarters, depending on the size of loaf and appetites you're working with. The dough from the middle becomes a fluffy lid on top once the curry's poured in.
Sometimes a bunny chow comes solo, but often they're served with a side of sambal, a condiment/salad of grated carrot (how appropriate), onion and chili.
• When asking a friend (note: friend, not date. Curry fingers 'n' face are just dead unsexy) to get some bunny chow, say "bunnies," skip "chow."
• When ordering bunny chow, say neither "bunny" nor "chow." Just say the portion of loaf you want (whole, half or quarter) and type of filling, as in "a half lamb."
• Your bunny will likely come wrapped in newspaper; bad for eating but good for catching up on yesterday's happenings.
• Be sure to support the bottom of your bread if you get the "funny bunny," the crustless chunk of bread from the center of the loaf.
• If you want to eat like a local, stick with your hands. If you must start out with utensils, drop 'em once the curry level recedes enough to easily rip off chunks of the bowl for scooping up the rest.
• The bread on top of the bowl is known as the "virgin." You should ease into the main event by dipping the virgin into the hole.
• It's okay to share bunnies, but taking a taste of someone else's virgin without asking is rude.
For the best Bunny in town, check out Cafe India in Seaview for meat and Taste of India in Wilson's Wharf for vegetarian, gourmet, sambals and best in show. The people also dig Dany's House of Curries in Tongaat. For the ultimate in chowing, the Bunny Chow Barometer, a competition that pits Durban's best meat and veggie bunnies against each other in fierce competition, is held each September at the Blue Lagoon on the south bank of the Mgeni River.
However you chow your bunny, don't be afraid to get elbows-deep sloppy with it and keep your enemies close, but your virgin closer.
-- Jaclyn Einis