So. The French have their onion soup. The Americans have their apple pie. The Germans have their bratwurst and sauerkraut. What do we have? Well, to my mind nothing defines us (in a culinary sense, anyway!) better than a braai. As a South African abroad, there are few things that make me homesick as fast as the smell of woodsmoke. One whiff while walking home from the train station is all it takes and suddenly you are transported back to another time and place – maybe a seaside holiday, maybe a student jol, maybe a 21st birthday party. One way or another, the smell of a braai fire is one of the ties that really binds South Africans together.
Let me start by explaining that South Africans do not barbecue or barbie or have a cookout – they BRAAI. It’s a whole different ballgame and one of the reasons why, for me, SA rocks. The word itself can mean a number of things: it can be a verb as in “please braai my steak for me”; a noun referring to the barbecue structure as in “I’m going to do my chicken on the braai”; or a noun referring to the entire social occasion as in “We are having a braai on Sunday”. But the South African braai goes way beyond linguistics or a simple cooking method – it has been elevated to the status of a social and cultural institutionFormerly the preserve of white and mainly Afrikaner South Africans, the braai today crosses all cultural and socio-economic barriers and is universally loved – and given the South African climate, it is an activity that we indulge in all year round, with gusto.
Traditionally, the braai was the cooking method of the Voortrekkers, who had no choice but to shoot fresh meat and cook it on open fires. So today, there are still braai puritans who insist that to be a “proper” braai, the meat has to be cooked on an open wood fire (doringhout or rooikrans will do nicely). The making of this fire is usually a skill passed down from father to son – how to pile the wood, where to put the newspaper or kindling and of course, how to tell when the fire is ready for cooking, which usually involves counting how long you can leave your hand above the coals before yanking it away in pain (I’m told anything below about 8 seconds is too hot). And woe betide anyone who casts aspersions on a man’s ability to make a good braai fire – this is tantamount to questioning his manhood… The fire is traditionally started hours before any cooking is due to be done, using about 10 times more wood than is, strictly speaking, necessary. This is the “kuiervuur” which is built purely as a backdrop against which the braaiers can stand and chat about rugby (or braaing techniques!) until the requisite amount of Castle Lager has been consumed!
These braai puritans also have fixed ideas on the type of structure to be used for a braai and will pooh-pooh the idea of Weber charcoal grills or fancy grills as “for sissies”. The Real Braaier has been known to make a fire in an old wheelbarrow or in an old washing machine drum – the drum’s little holes provide the correct degree of protection and ventilation! There are also traditional conventions as to what can go on a braai. Traditionally, braai food consisted of lamb or pork chops, beef steaks of some description, boerewors and marinated pork spare ribs if one was feeling adventurous. Fish might be permissible in the Western Cape but chicken was for sissies. The braai was essentially a protein-fest – vegetables were confined to the odd whole potato or onion, wrapped in foil and tossed into the coals, to emerge steaming and delicious when they yield to a sharp poke with a knife. My father (who was born in 1922 and qualifies as a braai traditionalist in my book!) also always insists on white bread spread with apricot jam to accompany his braaivleis – but more usual traditional side dishes include potato salad, roosterkoek or mealie pap and ‘train smash’. And the golden rule of the traditional braai is this: while the women may congregate in the kitchen and make side dishes and conversation, it is the men who prepare the meat and do the braaing. They huddle around the fire comparing braai tongs (really, they do!!), marinades and braai technique, and all shake their heads sadly when someone deviates from the braai norm by, say, putting their meat on the fire too early/late/at the wrong angle. Hmm… the mingled smell of smoke and testosterone. Witness the wild beauty of these gorillas in the smoke.
OK, so some South Africans have moved forward since the days of the Voortrekkers, and one often encounters very progressive and innovative braaiers these days (my husband, luckily for me, being amongst them!). Modern braaiers will quite happily use a Weber or other commercially available grill – although gas grills are still seen as not quite the Real Thing. They are also quite happy to braai on charcoal briquettes as opposed to wood (although for a kuiervuur, wood is still the material of choice!). Their repertoire of dishes has also been considerably extended – whole beef fillets, spatchcocked chickens, whole fish, chicken sundowners (sadly, a South African innovation that has not travelled) – we have even boldly gone where no man has gone before and started braaing vegetables!. And of course, the salads have now extended way beyond the traditional potato salad (but don’t you dare invite me to a braai and NOT serve potato salad!). Some things, of course, have not changed. The Castle Lager still flows freely (it can also be used in an emergency to douse flames caused by dripping fat – but this is generally seen as a shameful waste of a good beer and a jug of water should be at hand for such emergencies) and the kuiervuur remains popular, especially at winter braais. The women are generally seen outside the kitchen at modern braais, sipping on their Sauvignon Blanc (or Brutal Fruit, depending on the average age of the party!). But to whatever extent women have gained social equality in the New South Africa, one constant remains – the men do the braaing!! To deny them this would be to deny them their manhood. And besides, it is one of the few times a red-blooded South African man will volunteer to cook…
At the risk of offending everyone, I just have to say a few words about nationality and braaing ability. In South Africa, every little boy grows up learning to braai. The first food you eat NOT made my grownups is usually on a school or university weekend away when some teenage boy incinerates his first lamb chop – so you could say braaing is in our blood and if I say so myself, damn, we’re good at it. Here in London, when we are invited to a barbecue (i.e not an exclusively South African gathering!), it is almost always the South African men that gravitate towards the fire and end up doing all the cooking of meat, while the Aussies and Kiwis make lots of suggestions from the sidelines (but don’t actually DO anything ) and the Brits nervously clutch their mobile phones, wondering whether the smoke levels warrant a call to the fire brigade. But to be fair, the Brits don’t really stand a chance in the barbecue/braai stakes – and it stems from a traumatic childhood introduction. I mean, hubby and I nearly laughed our heads off the first time we saw a “disposable BBQ” in the supermarket here – a foil roasting pan filled with (useless) lumpwood charcoal and a single firelighter, covered with a flimsy grid. The idea is that you tuck this item under your arm, head out into the glorious English countryside and just toss in a match to start your BBQ and within minutes, you’ll be grilling. In reality, however, these disposables lead to two very unhappy consequences. Firstly, the lumpwood charcoal burns at about 3 million degrees for about 10 minutes and then the lumps disintegrate and the temperature drops to nil. This means that anything you cook on it will be black as coal on the outside and bloody on the inside, and leads to Brits trying to cook over open flames as opposed to glowing coals long after they have abandoned disposables. The second consequence is that, because of the tiny available grid area, you end up cooking tiny things, like pork sausages and hamburger patties and nothing else! So your average British barbecue combines undercooked food with processed meats and the end result is just horrid. Oh yes, and summer only lasts about a week, so there is hardly any time to practice and get really good. The poor sods.
So keep your roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, keep your paella and keep your pizza. South Africa rocks because we’re the land of “braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet”. Beat that!
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