South Africa has no national cuisine. This sort of makes sense, because we don’t really have a national culture. We have lots of them. We all know what a bunny chow is. But if you asked us, we would tell you it was Indian food. We all know what Bobotie is. But that’s Cape Malay food. There’s Melktert. But that’s Afrikaans. We know what a smiley is. But it can’t be part of your national cuisine if no-one you know can bear to look it in the eye, let alone eat it.
But there is one type of food that unites us. The braai. You will tell me that it’s just a barbecue. How dare you! It is not “just” anything. It is a fundamental part of our culture. It unites us. It gives us all something in common. No matter what their language or race, South Africans love to braai. No matter where you find yourself, if you step outside on a Saturday afternoon, and breathe in, your nose will fill with the glorious smell of grilling meat.
There are two good reasons for this. Firstly, the meat here is good and it is (relatively) cheap. And secondly, in what is still a largely patriarchal society, it is a chance for men to give their womenfolk a bit of a break, to show their appreciation for all their wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers and daughters do, to give them a day away from the cooking and the cleaning and give them a chance to relax and just breathe.
For a braai is man’s work. I’m just going to talk you though some of the basics. But I’m sure you’ll get the idea.
Firstly, there’s the braai itself. The apparatus. To achieve the highest level of respect from your peers, you need to have made your braai yourself by welding odd shaped bits of metal together, or cutting a gas tank in half with an acetylene torch (extra points for risking an explosion), but you can get away with the standard half oil-drum. Using a fancy black-enamelled kettle braai like a Weber is like driving a Ford Focus; nobody is going to openly mock you, but that doesn’t mean that everyone doesn’t secretly pity you.
A proper braai is made with wood. If you find yourself in the right sort of company, you can have a two hour conversation about wood selection. It’s complicated. You should be selecting on the basis of the warmth and heat retention of the coals, and the aroma. Which is better? Combretum? Mopani? Acacia? But it doesn’t stop there. There are environmental considerations. Shouldn’t you be using cleared exotic wood, to preserve our meagre water-supply? Or shouldn’t you at least consider sickle-bush, to help prevent bush encroachment. You can use charcoal. But it’s not going to score you any points, and you’re not allowed to discuss it.
Once you’ve sorted all that out, you can actually get round to making the fire. First, open a beer. Build a heap of logs up around some firelighter and light. Now it is time to sit back and “watch the fire”. This is very important work since there are safety issue to consider. It involves sitting back in a folding chair and telling competitive stories about sport, wildlife or crime, while occasionally leaning forward to poke the fire with a stick. This is hot and thirsty work, and will probably require another beer. Luckily, this process can take a while, since it gives the ladies a chance to unwind by going inside and making a baked potato-and-onion dish, and perhaps whipping up some pumpkin or butternut.
At last, the wood will have burned down to coal. It is now time to open a beer and spread the coals into a nice, even bed. And then wait. You can’t just rush into it. The coals have to be exactly the right temperature. This involves interrupting your prize-winning elephant-charge story every few minutes to stand up and hold a hand over the coals, before nodding sagely to yourself and sitting down again.
This gives those lucky ladies an opportunity to enjoy some fresh air by laying the table and bringing out the meat. If the host has done his homework properly, his wife or girlfriend would have stayed up the previous night and marinated the meat, and he can now discuss the marinade recipe. This is the only recipe which the men at a braai are allowed to discuss.
The coals should be ready. The host then gets to work in earnest. He opens a beer and then spreads the meat out on the grid. There are strict rules governing the order in which this should be done. Starting with chicken. This is a labour-intensive process that involves interrupting his story about how he watched the world cup final live at least four times to stand up and turn the meat. The ladies, in the mean-time can kick back by popping back inside and making a salad.
There are complicated social rules governing the actual cooking of the meat. The host himself retains iron control over the cooking process, but at least one of the male guests has to stand up and hover over the meat making vague intentional movements as if to show the host that if he was doing this properly he would have turned the meat minutes ago, and moved the chicken to one side to take it off the heat. Someone, either the same person or another of the guests, needs to look vaguely surprised at the host’s decision about when the meat is ready.
About five minutes before the meat is ready, the men will let the ladies know that it is time for them to stop relaxing in the kitchen and come out and dish up the side dishes. Since it is, after all, the ladies’ day off, the men will be perfectly happy to help themselves to the meat.
That’s nearly it. Time to open a beer and tuck in. Except for the guy who was hovering. He needs to take his meat back to the fire as ostentatiously as possible and cook it for another five minutes. Everyone else tucks in, explaining occasionally how they would have cooked the meat. Better, basically. Then it’s time to sit back over a beer or two and make room for some of the desserts the ladies have prepared.
And that’s the traditional South African braai. Done. Time for the ladies to brew up some coffee. All that remains is for the ladies to do the washing up and it’s time to go. This may seem a little unfair, but bear in mind the men have done all of the hard work up until now.
That is not how things work round here. When Mrs 23thorns has the day off, she has the day off. This is not because I’m a feminist or anything. It’s just that Mrs 23thorns frightens me, and she knows where I sleep. And so I have, over time, developed my own braai recipe. And now I’m going to share it with you. It’s very complicated, so it might be worth printing it out.
The 23thorns Ladies’ day off Braai Recipe.
5 chicken drumsticks.
You will notice that I’m not too heavy on the vegetables. Too many vegetables tend to frighten my children and make them start agitating for yoghurt before we even start cooking. I find that including three different types of vegetables ensures that they will eat at least one, and we can hold off both rickets and scurvy for another week.
1 large steak
1 coil of thick boerewors (a thick traditional “beef” sausage which goes some way in explaining why there are so many donkeys and so few donkey carts round here).
1 coil of thin boerewors (for vegetarians)
6 lamb chops.
Take the meat out of those funny little trays.
Make a fire by burying an entire box of firelighters under a pile of charcoal. Wood would be nice, but the children have a moth-like attraction to open flames, and run at them with any highly flammable materials they can find the moment we turn our backs. Coals burn faster, cutting down on the “danger period”
As soon as any sign of flame disappears, and the coals are a nice angry red, it’s time to start cooking. Waiting for things to cool down is for nerds. At this point, it is vital to open 2 beers. Go ahead and drink the one.
Put the onion and potato on the fire. Turn whenever you feel like it.
Put the chicken on the fire. Turn whenever you feel like it.
Put the lamb chops on the fire. Turn whenever you feel like it.
Put the thick wors on the fire. Turn whenever you feel like it.
Take a deep breath and prepare yourself emotionally. Wearing a tin foil hat and putting some fire retardant in your eyebrows might also be a good idea. Grasp your second beer firmly in one hand. All hell is about to break loose. As the thick wors starts to cook, the skins will start to bubble and swell under the pressure of the melting fat beneath. At some point, probably when you try to turn it, it is going to pop.
And when it does, it’s going to burst into flame. This will singe off all of the hair on your knuckles, but great victories are not won without sacrifice. Don’t panic. Simply throw some of your beer onto the fire. As well as dousing the flames, this will make a satisfying “whoomp!”, and give the meat a bit of flavour.
From this point on, always keep your beer at the ready. Things could flare up at any time.
Put the thin wors on the fire. Turn whenever you feel like it.
Put the steak on the fire. Turn whenever you feel like it.
Take everything off and throw it into the same dish.
Sorted. Serve on paper plates and eat with your fingers. Avoid eye-contact with your spouse as you do so. Should anyone complain that the meat is burnt, explain that you read in the papers that there was a tapeworm scare in the Northern Province, and you didn’t want to take any chances.
All that remains once the meal is over is to tell your daughter not to give the bones to the dogs and your son not to put the plates on the fire. Lure your spouse inside on some slim pretext. Pop out and grab the meat dish. There should be nothing else on the table at this point. Wash it. Done.
Should you be having guests over, you obviously can’t get away without having a few side dishes. These are easy and trouble-free to prepare. A day or two before the braai, they will phone and ask if they can bring anything along. Answer thus;
“Of course not! I’ve got it all under control. Just bring yourselves. And maybe a little salad. And a potato-and–onion bake. And some pumpkin. We weren’t really going to do a dessert, but if you want to bring along two pies and a tub of ice-cream, that would be fine.”
And there you have it. Follow this recipe to the letter, and you can have a traditional South African meal. Just remember to mention me by name when the local news carries a story about the results of your next cholesterol test. I am not a publicity-hound or anything. I just believe that credit should be given where credit is due.