Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bunny Chow

In honor of World Cup 2010's host country, I decided to make some popular South African street food for a group of friends who gathered at our place yesterday to watch USA vs. England. I was lucky enough to get to SA in our summer/their winter of 2005, and Bunny Chow was far and away my favorite meal there--perhaps with the exception of PeriPeri shrimp, which I'll post before the Cup ends. Here's the recipe for one of the easiest and most satisfying dishes I've made in ages.

Bunny Chow
  • 2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs (bite size pieces)
  • 2 tbsp garlic (minced)
  • 2 tbsp ginger (minced)
  • 1.5 red onions (chopped)
  • 4 large potatoes (bite size pieces)
  • 1 tbsp turmeric
  • 2 tbsp red chili powder
  • 2 tbsp ground coriander
  • 2 tbsp salt
  • 2 tbsp garam masala
  • 1 inch piece of cinnamon
  • 3-4 cardamon pods
  • 3-4 cloves
  • 1 cup low sodium chicken broth
  • 1 tbsp cornstarch and a little bit of water
  • 12 whole bread rolls (not the sliced kind)

Here's the amazing part--just combine* all of the ingredients (with the exception of the chicken broth, cornstarch, water and rolls) in a slow cooker. Make sure you rub the spices into the chicken, onion and potatoes. Next, add the chicken broth. Cook on high for 3.5-4 hours, or on low for 7.5-8 hours. About 30 minutes before serving, mix the cornstarch with enough water to make a thick paste and add this mixture to the chicken curry. Stir well, and don't be afraid to have the chicken and potatoes break apart. *I ignored a bunch of slow-cooker first principles by not searing the meat, not layering meat on top of potatoes, etc. It turned out moist, tender and delicious anyway. And if we had the time to do all of those preparatory steps in the morning before work, would the slow cooker really have revolutionized the amount of time we spend on meals?

How to serve: Pour the chicken curry into a serving dish and garnish with chopped cilantro (optional). Take the bread rolls and hollow out a large hole in each one, making sure that you retain the 'lid' and 'insides' as one piece. [note: the kaiser rolls pictured above are a decent, if not slightly disappointing, substitute for South African 'government sandwich loaves' which are tall and square, like Indian pav. If you can get loaves like those, bless you.] Allow guests to assemble their own Bunny Chow by removing the lid, scooping some curry inside and using the lid to eat the meal with their hands. That's the real way to do it. Serves 12.

The astute among you may be asking why chicken curry inside of a bread bowl is called Bunny Chow. Since 12 servings of rabbit do not usually appear on a graduate student's grocery budget, I'm grateful that the name developed completely independent of the cottonball-tailed burrowers.

While the actual origin of the dish is disputed, I find the most believable account to involve the Bania (pronounced: buh-nee-yah) caste of Indian migrants, brought over to South Africa as indentured laborers to work on sugar cane fields. One version explains that Indians were excluded from restaurants and given curry scooped into a loaf of bread to take away; another claims that Indian workers found the loaf easy to transport to the fields. Both reports describe the affordability and convenience of a meal that workers have discovered in various countries throughout history--pasties in England, for example, were also cheap and convenient options for Cornish tin miners who could not come up for lunch and wanted a self-contained meal to eat without utensils below ground.

The term Bunny Chow is said to have arisen around 1933, when Indians and non-Indians alike suffered from the Great Depression and discovered that this meal was one of the cheapest they could manage. Bunny became the colloquial adaptation of the Banian curry, and 'chow' was the term used to describe Chinese food--another community who turned to the meal for sustenance. Interestingly enough, now the phrase is sometimes used to describe multiculturalism in South Africa, even becoming the namesake for a 2006 film about the humanity in interpersonal/intercultural/interracial, really inter-difference, relationships.

Sixteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa has made serious advancements in this direction, and I hope that this fact isn't lost on World Cup audiences as they watch matches hosted in this country. Its post-apartheid Constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, for example, and even legalized same-sex marriage in 2006.

But race relations seem to be another matter. The legalized system of racial segregation under apartheid (in addition to a history of colonialism), and the measures that have since been taken to compensate for such injustice, have fostered distrust and resentment that seems to live strong today. I remember walking back to my hostel in Durban, with some Bunny Chow in hand, and encountering its white owner on a bench outside. He looked at the food in my hands and offered the following, unsolicited, wisdom: "We have a saying here in South Africa. During apartheid, whites were the head of the cow, blacks were the ass, and Indians were milking it in the middle. Now that apartheid's over, blacks are the head, whites are the ass and the damn Indians are still milking it in the middle." Charming, really.


Raj Ajinkya said...

I can already smell and taste the Bunny Chow.

Joy said...

sounds delish! will have to try it!