The bunny chow can also be referred to as “bunny”. Disclaimer: no bunnies were harmed in the research process of this blog post.
First time I heard about the bunny chow was from a fellow South African foodie. Everyone would assume there’s rabbit in the dish because of the word “bunny” but for some reason, I pictured an Asian stir-fry dish, probably because my mind was fixed on the word “chow”, like in “chow mein”.
The bunny chow is essentially curry in a bread loaf. No one has any idea why it was called “bunny chow” but it is the staple dish of Indian South African cuisine and originated from Durban, dubbed “Little India” of South Africa, since it’s the largest Indian city outside of India. The dish is now very popular and can be found everywhere in the country, whether it is at a food counter in the student food court of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, a casual restaurant in the CDB of Cape Town or a fancy 4- or 5-star restaurant along North Beach in Durban.
I got to experience the authentic bunny chow in Durban during the weekend of National Heritage Day, also called National Braai Day. My friend and I decided to road trip: a 5-hour drive filled with conversations and music (but mostly music).
The road trip started with my friend driving on the highway while I was helping him finish a tricky email which his career depended on. A hilarious half-hour which ended with us stopping at a gas station for him to build up the courage to press send. The remaining 4 hours or so of the drive were filled with music: from Coldplay’s Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends, to B.O.B.’s Strange Clouds, to half of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, to Santana’s Supernatural and so many others. We didn’t know much about each other before that drive, not even our age, but funny how a mutual appreciation for music can bring people together.
The first morning in Durban, we decided we need to experience the authentic bunny chow in the heart of the city. And by the heart, I don’t mean the sketchy CBD but more so North Beach.
We arrived at one end of North Beach, took a walk further away from the touristic restaurants and fancy hotels and chose a casual little restaurant as our brunch place. A quarter-size beans bunny chow doesn’t look much but it is quite filling and can make you last the whole day. Bunny chows come in quarter-loaf, half-loaf or full-loaf and are filled with any type of curry: beans for vegetarians, chips for those wanting lots of starch, mutton for those with religious dietary restrictions or beef/chicken for the meat lovers.
Since it’s quite a filling dish, the only side that comes with it is relish to help cut through its thickness and a small piece of bread called “the virgin” that can serve as a spoon for the first few bites into the bunny. The dish has a bit of history to it and here is the simple and shortened version the restaurant owner gave us:
Indians first came to South Africa during colonization when the Dutch brought slaves from India and stopped to drop them off at the sugar cane plantations in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. This sort of explains why the majority of the Indian South African community is concentrated around Durban which is the biggest city of that province.
Then, during apartheid, the Indian communities suffered as much discrimination as the black communities. It’s just that since they are a minority, it wasn’t mentioned widely and they were just classified as “non-Whites” along with Muslims, Asians and Cape Malay.
Most Indian South Africans at the time were blue collar workers and they needed to pack a filling lunch that is also convenient and doesn’t require cutlery or even take-away boxes. A simple and easy lunch would allow them to get back to work quickly without having to pack their lunch boxes back properly.
Curry and rice is the typical Indian food but it wasn’t easy to pack so instead, they took bread loaves and used them as edible boxes, hollowed them and filled them with curry to create the bunny chow.
For the restaurant owner, a man in his late 40s, the bunny chow became a popular dish during his youth. However, he told us that for his parents and people of their generation, they did not find anything particularly astonishing about the dish since it was synonymous to the blue collars’ struggle and the discrimination they endured.
I’m unsure how many South Africans would know about the story of the bunny chow but I’m certain no one really wants this delicious and filling dish to remind them of that, especially when so many things in daily life already reminded people of that time.