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In South Africa, meat and fire combine to create braai, a national tradition that incorporates the cooking traditions of the country’s myriad cultures. Writer Jennifer Blumberg walks us through the custom, from tinder to table.
Text: Jennifer Blumberg
Country: South Africa

ultures around the world have barbecues, or other traditions that revolve around food and fire. But for South Africans, it is a fervent national obsession.

In South Africa, cooking meat over an open fire is called “braai.” The word braai is Afrikaans for “barbecue” or “roast” and is a social custom in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Just like “barbecue,” the word “braai” serves as a verb when describing how food is cooked and as a noun when describing the cooking equipment, such as a grill.

South Africans are not only the best braaiers in the world, but scientists believe they are the first. The oldest proofof humans controlling fire has been found in the Cradle of Humankind outside Johannesburg. Today, the tradition of braaing has become so important that South Africa even has National Braai Day, an unofficial but widely celebrated holiday occurring on the 24th of September (which is also South Africa’s Heritage Day).

As one South African friend of mine explained the custom:

“I’ve noticed that when South Africans celebrate, they braai. When they are sad, they braai. They braai at home, they braai on the beach, they braai at rugby and they braai inside if there is nowhere else to braai. It’s a way of life!”- said Barry, 65, of Cape Town.

Braai Food – Meat, Veggies, Dessert, Drinks

Meat:

South Africa is a culture of carnivores, and thus meat is the star of the show in a traditional braai. Popular meats include boerwors, or farmer’s sausage, sosaties, marinated chicken, lamb chops and kebabs. Fish and seafood are also common, particularly in coastal areas.

Veggies:

Another main part of the meal is pap, or porridge, a staple of local African communities. Pap comes from ground maize and is usually eaten with a tomato-based sauce or the spicier chakalaka sauce.

Salads and cooked vegetables take a supporting role in a traditional braai. However, they should not be completely overlooked – South Africa’s varied climate allows for fresh, delicious vegetables just about any time of the year.

Dessert:

Koeksisters, derived from the Dutch Koekje, which means “cookie,” are often a featured dessert at a braai. They are sticky and sweet and taste like honey. Melktert, or milk tart, a favorite of mine, is a sweet pastry crust with a creamy filling and a hint of cinnamon.

Drinks:

No braai is complete without copious amounts of beer and wine, and South Africa delivers on both. After all, SABMiller is the world’s second-largest brewery, and the vineyards in Stellenbosch and surrounding areas are world-famous. And few South Africans will say no to a sip of Amarula, a sweet liqueur made with sugar, cream and the fruit of the African marula tree.

In fact, when I think about the variety of food I’ve eaten around a South African fire, I think of how it is a fitting illustration of the Rainbow Nation, for these foods are as diverse as South Africa itself.

Braaing on the Road

Braais can happen any time and are certainly not limited to dinner. Whenever my family went on safari to the Kruger National Park, we always used to cook breakfast using askottelbraai, a miniature, gas-powered grill. We’d wake up early to do a morning walk through the savannah to get some fresh air and view the animals. (If we were lucky, we’d catch a glimpse of some of the shy nocturnal creatures as they scurried off to hide before the sun rose.) We always looked forward to coming back to our camp mid-morning to make a slap-up breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausages, mushrooms and tomatoes. Mom and Dad would alternate being braai master and we kids would try to make ourselves useful by chopping up fruits and vegetables.

Braais in the wilderness are not without hazards, and we quickly learned to pas op, which is Afrikaans for “Be careful!” It turns out that vervet monkeys also love braais. We could never let the nosy creatures catch us off guard. The minute we’d look away, they’d come down and grab our tomatoes, and possibly my purse. Sneaky little things.

The Braai-in-a-Box

I suppose we can’t begrudge the monkeys the occasional cooked tomato – it’s a treat they’d never be able to get on their own. After all, it took homo sapiens thousands of years to learn how to coax a flame out of two twigs, and even longer to produce a perfectly grilled T-bone.

Indeed, preparing a proper fire can be a long, drawn-out process. Here’s how to do it:

1. First, stack some newspaper, tinder and wood. Make sure there is plenty of air between the bits of wood. Light the stack on fire with a match.
2. When the fire is blazing hot, add the charcoal.
3. Wait 20 to 30 minutes. Make sure the fire doesn’t go out. Kill time with snacks, drinks and conversation.
4. Once the flames have settled, leaving perfect glowing coals, add the meat.

Thankfully, just about anyone can braai these days, thanks to a recent innovation: the Braai-in-a-box. These boxes make up a complete braai kit, with a combination of tongs, forks, knives, firelighters and matches. The outside is made from slats of highly flammable pinewood and the inside is stuffed with coal. You set this whole thing alight with a match, and 40 minutes later you have a heap of coals perfect for braaing. “We love those braai boxes!” says Michele, 63, from Johannesburg.“Whenever we see them in the shop we try to stock up.”

As convenient as they are, be careful! Cutting corners may get you demoted from braai master to salad maker. Michele agrees: “A real South African braai master probably wouldn’t use a braai box.”

The Braai Master

All right, what is a braai master and how do you become one?

Simply put, the braai master is the one in charge. At a typical South African braai, the braai master will attend to the fire, check that the coals are ready, and cook the meat. Others may assist the braai master, but only if expressly asked to do so. Usually they’ll just form a circle around the braai and partake in fireside conversation.

That said, I’ve always believed that being a braai master means a little bit more than simply being “one who braais.” After all, the word “master” implies someone who is eminently skilled in something.

To find out more, I chatted with Gregg, 31, a seasoned braaier. The last time Gregg braai’d for me, he made Peri-Periprawns, a Mozambican delicacy, along with a smorgasbord of seasonal vegetables. According to him, a true braai master is a recognized expert in his field:

“A braai master is someone who gets it right. He builds a great fire. He buys the right meat. He uses the right amount of marinade. He knows that the meat has a specific order of appearance: steak goes first; chicken goes last. Between those, you can throw on the boerwors, lamb chops, sosaties and whatever else you’re braaiing.”

In other words, a braai master is one who knows the meat inside out. He knows when to add it to the grill and precisely how long to wait before flipping it over. This, according to Gregg, doesn’t come naturally. For him, the art of braaing was passed down from earlier generations. “I’ve been braaing since I was a little tyke,” he says. “My dad would braai out on the patio on the big Weber while my two brothers and I would have our kiddie braais lined up in a row next to him.”

If you weren’t lucky enough to learn how to braai from a young age, there are other resources available. Braai.com has a wealth of information, from braai-related vocabulary to braaing technique. Aspiring braai masters can also take a look at “The Ultimate Braai Master”, South Africa’s first reality-based television show, to watch and learn as the best chefs in the country duke it out.

Other than that, practice makes perfect. Why not grab your tongs, fire up the coals and have a go?

A Selection of South Africa’s Rainbow Cuisine

Food Origin
Boerwors Afrikaans
Sosaties Cape Malay
Samosas Indian
Pap African
Chakalaka African
Marinated Chicken Cape Dutch, Mozambican, Indian, Western European (depending on the marinade!)
Koeksisters Cape Malay, Afrikaans
Milk Tart Dutch

*Note: the title “Braai the Beloved Country” is a play on the 1948 classic South African novel “Cry the Beloved Country”, written by Alan Paton.



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Braai the Beloved Country .

Cultures around the world have barbecues, or other traditions that revolve around food and fire. But for South Africans, it is a fervent national obsession.

In South Africa, cooking meat over an open fire is called “braai.” The word braai is Afrikaans for “barbecue” or “roast” and is a social custom in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Just like “barbecue,” the word “braai” is a verb when describing how food is cooked and is a noun when describing the cooking equipment, such as a grill.

Braai’s include a variety of meats such as farmer’s sausage, marinated chicken, lamb chops, and kebabs as well as pap (a porridge made from maize), cooked vegetables, and salads, and of course dessert. Dessert is usually a Dutch cookie called Koeksister or a milk tart called Melkert. And a braai is only complete when you have lots of beer and wine.

You can have a braai at any time and almost anywhere, at the beach, at the mountains or in your backyard. There is a specific way of preparing a braai and people who are experts at it are called braai masters. For people that want an easy way to have a braai, they can buy a braai-in-a-box, which is a kit that comes with everything you need to prepare a proper braai.

 

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Braai the Beloved Country

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Braai the beloved country

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