Taste of Durban

Epicurean adventure

Taste of Durban
Bunny chow. Mull over the name. Describe it. Hint 1: No, it is not the name of a Chinese rabbit. Hint 2: It is not another gooey noodle on the plate. Hint 3: It is food. Invented in Durban. Hint 4: You do not need a plate to eat it. Just load it on your palm. And dig in. Without a spoon. Hint 5: Bunny chow and Durban are always mentioned in the same breath.

Confused? Bunny Chow is a scooped out loaf of bread filled with gravy broad beans or gravy chicken/mutton. This is not just a dish, though. Its story is inextricably entangled with the history of apartheid in South Africa, of the Indians who first arrived in Durban in 1860s to work as indentured labour in sugarcane plantations. In an era of segregation and white supremacy, coloured people were prohibited to enter most eateries. Packed lunches and take-aways were the prerogative of a privileged few. The Indians who worked long hours as day labour in sugarcane fields needed an easy-to-carry and difficult-to-spoil lunch. Roti was a bad option — it fell apart.

Indian influences

Thats’ when in 1940s, a smart-thinking bania (man from a trading community) scooped out a loaf of bread, filled the hollow with gravy beans and lo! the bunny chow was invented. The scooped out portion of the bread was used as lid and, well, to scoop the beans. Over time, Bania community’s food became bunny chow. This is the not the only story, though. You’ll hear murmurs of how bunny chow was invented because coloured golf caddies were not allowed to carry cutlery! In the beginning, the bunny chow was purely vegetarian. Mutton and chicken bunnies were added to the menu much later and now served as quarter, half or full loaves.

I was sitting in Oriental Restaurant behind the Old Railway Station from where Mahatma Gandhi had boarded that infamous train to Pretoria and on the granite table lay the quarter broad bean bunny chow with a side of grated carrots and chilli. That quarter looked so gigantic, I could eat it as three meals. Then, I noticed dholl on the laminated menu. “What’s dholl?” I asked Khetha Mkhize, the tour guide. “That’s yellow lentil soup,” he explained quickly. “That’s dal,” I hastened to correct what I thought was a typo. “No, it is dholl,” Mkhize insisted. Okay, dal is dholl in Durban. I peered harder at the menu. There was breyani. Papar. “Biryani. Papad”. I corrected spellings in my head.

“Durban’s cuisine owes a lot to migrant Indians. The Zulu land changed when on November 16, 1860, the first batch of 342 Indian indentured labour arrived in Durban aboard Truro from Madras to work on sugar plantations,” food blogger Shirley Berko chipped in with historical explanation. The Indians brought along spices and a taste of vegetarianism in a carnivore city. The Indian influence is most evident in Victoria Market where the air is heady with the smell of Indian spices. In the early 1900s, Indians started selling spices and vegetables in what was then known as Top Market. With more Indians arriving as labourers and later as teachers, traders and artists, the spice market grew larger by the day.

Spicing things up

In Victoria Market, I met Padmanabhan Reddy whose father set up a spice shop in 1910. His shop — Reddy’s — is still loaded with spices ranging from mother-in-law exterminator chillies to father-in-law hell fire spices. Funny names for killer chillies that spiced up the cuisine of Durban which before the Indian stepped foot meant boiling meat with salt and water.

In Durban, I was in quest of the largest curry spread. And that search brought me to Oyster Box, an upscale hotel where a century-old lighthouse stands like a stern sentinel. It was lunch time and Indianness was evident everywhere. On a table lay piping hot samosas and chilli balls (fried fritters) and the curry buffet included pulao, dal makhni, aloo gobi matar (potato, cauliflower, pea curry), lamb vindaloo, cucumber raita, countless pickles (mango, tamarind, jackfruit, vegetable). For chef Luke Nair, the curry spread is an everyday affair. Nair, whose grandfather migrated to Durban from Kerala, knows all about spices. After all, he has been rustling curries for 41 long years.

“In Oyster Box, the chicken curry always has a yellowish hue and is finished with roasted cumin seeds. Mutton curry concludes with a dash of green cardamom while fish curry will always have fenugreek seeds,” Nair spews the intricacies of Indian-Durban cuisine and reminisces about his grandfather’s farm in Oakford where he planted herbs between sugarcane plantation.

Having lived in South Africa for three-four generations, Zulu influences have stepped into the Indian kitchen but vermicelli and semolina continue to be staple in every household.
With a pile of curry pineapples in hand, I drove to Phoenix Settlement where Mahatma Gandhi lived for 21 years. On a hot afternoon, a mango tree lent shade to Gandhi’s modest house. I leaned on the thick trunk and wondered whether Kasturba Gandhi ever plucked these mangoes and pickled them for her husband as he honed the principles of satyagraha. The mango tree stood silent. I returned home with the whiff of mango in my heart!

Where/what to eat in Durban

Oyster Box has the largest curry buffet lunch. Also known
for its high tea
Dinner + Zingara show in Suncoast Casino
Cargo Hold in uShaka, one of the largest theme parks in the world
Cafe 1999
House of Curries for Indian food
Try curry pineapple (diced pineapple sprinkled with spices) from street vendors
Meat platter in Max’s Lifestyle.
Order pap (corn mash) as side dish. 
Pick spices and savoury munchies in Victoria Market
‘Bunny chow’ is a must-have.

Available everywhere

Walk into a superstore and buy pineapple/banana flavoured
‘mahewu’ (fermented corn) which is only available in Durban
Zulu beer     

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