Kom Ons Braai: South African BBQ

Braai /ˈbrʌɪ/ – South African term for a BBQ

“Kom ons braai” – Afrikaans which literally translates to “Come, let’s braai” but the phrase is more like “hakuna matata and let’s eat”.

In South Africa, people love their braais, even more so than Canadians love their BBQs. I once asked someone what is “braai” exactly? His response: EVERYTHING.

An event

A campfire at night
Gathering around by the fire is an event

South Africans love braai so much they have a National Braai Day on September 24 (officially National Heritage Day but who uses that name?). I celebrated National Braai Day in Durban with a group of strangers: a fellow traveller I barely knew who became a very good friend after the trip, an Airbnb host whose profile picture made him funny-looking, and his group of friends and family we didn’t expect to meet.

National Braai Day was the day when everyone had time off to spend with their loved ones, to sit in the backyard and slow cook food over an open fire for a few hours while enjoying lots of wine and long conversations. And that was exactly what we were greeted with when we arrived in Durban. The crew welcomed us with the utmost hospitality and we all quickly got to know each other, shared our respective travel stories, our past experiences and even our individual views on long-distance relationships. In that moment, I understood a braai was an event that brings people together.

A verb

South Africans have the ability to patiently wait for the fire to be the right temperature and for the meat to cook perfectly. This can take an hour or two, depending on the types of meat and how much meat.

Doesn’t sound like much fun to be the chef. But in the rainbow nation, you never braai alone. There is generally just one chef, one person holding the tongs and flipping the meat but everyone else would keep him or her company around the fire.

I quickly learned that braai-ing doesn’t mean just cooking the meat on the grill, it means enjoying each other’s company and having a good time. Everyone braais as a group.

The object: the grill, charcoal and wood

Braa-ing with pine cones
Braai-ing with pine cones

Braais in South Africa are rarely gas, always charcoal or redwood. Yes, it might take more time to start the fire that way but the smoky taste on the meat is always worth it. No one ever minds starting a fire, no matter how long it takes knowing the delicious reward it brings.

I remember our team’s retreat weekend on a farm, for the braai, we had neither coal nor wood. Instead, we used the pinecones piled up and waiting to be disposed of. We broke the record for taking the longest time to start a fire as it took 2 people and almost half an hour with some stubborn pine cones refusing to catch fire. We were all starving but distracted our hunger with card games, silly fortune-telling and a few boiled eggs while waiting for the braai to be ready.

Once the pine cones caught fire, they were burning fast and throughout the night, we had to keep collecting more pinecones to keep the fire going. The braai brought our team together and keeping the fire going became a good bonding activity for us.

A location

At the hostel where I stayed in the Drakensberg (Khotso Guest Farm in Underberg), there was a bonfire area in the backyard. It doesn’t look like much during the day, just a simple block of concrete and a few bricks around it. But at night, it’s a magical place where all the guests and staff gathered. A German expat living in Durban, a retired Dutch couple traveling in South Africa, a family from Durban enjoying the long weekend break, a group of South African hostel owners/farmers, a Vietnamese/Canadian traveling with her Indian friend and so many other travelers from all places.

Despite the cold and damp night in the Drakensberg, everyone gathered around the fire outside instead of staying inside in the warm and cozy lounge area. We wanted to stay together around the fire to keep each other company, get to know one another and enjoy the moments

The community

Chicken and sausages on the grill
Braai-ing boerewors and chicken over dim light in the evening

Braai to me means ‘friends’

a friend’s response when I asked him what “braai” meant for him.

In this incredibly diverse but still heavily segregated rainbow nation, one thing is consistent everywhere: all communities braai. Doesn’t matter if you’re black, colored, Indian, Afrikaans or any other ethnicity, you invite your friends and family over for a braai, the loved ones you barely see because of the busy life; you invite special guests to a braai to show them South African hospitality or you have a braai with your running club in the botanical garden after a race.

The braai is all about the sense of community.

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