How Bunny Chow Became South Africa’s National Street Food

The dish is ubiquitous throughout the country, though nobody quite knows where it got its unusual name.

How Bunny Chow Became South Africa’s National Street Food

Photo by Maren Caruso / Food styling by Katie Christ

The U.S. has hot dogs; South Africa has bunny chow. Made of a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with vegetarian or meat curry, the beloved street food is ubiquitous throughout the country. The dish originated in Indian restaurants in the coastal city of Durban in the 1940s. When apartheid laws prevented South Africa’s black population from dining in restaurants, enterprising cooks started serving the self-contained take-out meal from their windows.

“Anyone who came near an Indian restaurant in the second half of the century thinks he invented bunny chow,” says Minal Hajratwala, a journalist and author whose great-great-uncle, G.C. Kapitan, really did create the first vegetarian “beans bunny” at his eponymous Durban restaurant, which operated from 1912 to 1992. A young Nelson Mandela was a regular at an offshoot of Kapitan’s in Johannesburg.

Hajratwala says that no one can say definitively how bunny chow got its name. The most widely accepted tale is that shopkeepers and restaurant owners on Grey Street—the nexus of Durban’s Indian community—were known as banias (a caste of merchants), and “bunny” is a corruption of bania.

How to Make Bunny Chow

Adapted from Cook Sister, Jeanne Horak-Druiff’s food blog

2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 cinnamon stick
4 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 medium onion, sliced thinly into rings
2–3 curry leaves
4 tsp Durban masala* (if unavailable, use red curry powder)
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 1⁄2 tsp grated ginger
1 1⁄2 tsp crushed garlic
2 large tomatoes, chopped, or a 14-oz can chopped tomatoes
2 1⁄4 pounds lamb, cubed
3–4 potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tsp garam masala
Salt, to taste
1 or 2 crusty, square loaves of bread (small farmhouse loaves are best)
Fresh coriander leaves for garnish

1. Heat the oil and add the cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, onion, and curry leaves. Fry until the onion is golden brown in color.
2. Add the Durban masala (or curry powder), turmeric, ginger, garlic, and tomato. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mix resembles a purée.
3. Add the meat and cook for about 10 minutes. Then add the potatoes and about 1⁄4 cup of water. Lower the heat and simmer on low. Keep an eye on it to make sure the bottom of the pot does not burn.
4. When the meat is cooked through and the potatoes are tender (about 30 minutes), add the garam masala. Test for seasoning and add salt if necessary. Simmer for 10 minutes on low heat.
5. Halve the loaves and scoop out the “virgins,” leaving the crusts to form bowls.
6. Spoon the curry into the half loaves and serve, garnished with coriander leaves. The virgin can be dipped into the curry and eaten as well.

This article originally appeared online in November 2011; it was updated in January 2018 to include current information.

Julia Cosgrove is vice president and editor in chief of AFAR, the critically acclaimed travel media brand that makes a positive impact on the world through high-quality storytelling that inspires, enriches, and empowers travelers who care. Julia lives in Berkeley, California.
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