My mom worked as a graphic designer at a signage and badge making company when I was a kid. There was a factory attached, and factories are the coolest when you’re six or seven years old. This one was also a great substitute for the day care my parents couldn’t afford. My favourite piece of machinery was the guillotine, a huge industrial metal-cutting machine. For the metal-workers, and me, lunchtime meant only one thing: a Coke and a bunny chow from the local curry den.
Later in life, as students, we would go to the inner city for cheap lunches at Little Gujarat or Hollywood Bets, usually for a bean bunny or the occasional dosa. Central Durban is dodgy; friends got mugged, one friend got stabbed, I had to fight a pimp. But yeah, Durban curry – worth it all.
Durban is South Africa’s third largest city after Johannesburg and Cape Town. It has the highest concentration of Indian people living outside of India. The census has it at around 800,000.
Durban curry is a complex and powerful thing. It started with the first indentured Indians who arrived on ships between 1860 and 1911 to work the railways and sugarcane fields. Indian cuisine from this era has remained largely unchanged as the people had no means to travel back and forth between the two countries. Durban curry had to adapt to the available ingredients.
Indians from the North and South of the country needed to use what they had, and adapt it, to keep their culture and cuisine alive. The curry is relentlessly hot, it’s red, it has large chunks of potato, ghee and oil are not spared, and beans or mutton are the go-to protein. I’d never heard of chicken tikka masala until I met some British people in my 20s and they had no idea what a mutton bunny was either. This is how cuisines evolve.
The bunny chow was developed out of necessity and corresponding ingenuity, a quarter loaf of hollowed-out white bread stuffed with curry and topped by the scooped bread belly for dabbing up the goodness. Accompanying sambals come in a baggy at these dens. They consist of grated carrot with vinegar and the hottest little mini chillies. We called them devil chillies, little pops of fury.
Stories have it that bunny chow was invented as a convenient lunch that workers would carry out into the sugarcane fields, fuel for a day’s hard graft. The origins can’t be pinned down to a single restaurant, but Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshment Room and The Victory Lounge are often mentioned. During Apartheid, these places weren’t allowed to sell food to non-whites, but they did anyway, and the curry stuffed quarter loaf was the vehicle. It could be taken away, it was cheap, and it didn’t require packaging or utensils. It was, I guess, a protest, a middle finger to the racists running the country.
The bunny chow is the builders’ sandwich of Durban. It’s the baguette and cheese, but less classy. It’s filling and cheap. I don’t think the other kids from my white suburban neighbourhood ate bunny chows, but I don’t think they were allowed to use the guillotine either.
Today’s cafe and eatery owners are third and fourth generation South African Indian, but their recipes and techniques remain unchanged, succumbing to none of the immigrant-story hardships. The bunny chow is a victory; authenticity at its finest, beautifully simple and something everyone should dirty their fingers with at least once.