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Posts Tagged ‘bunny chow’

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Photo: Ryan Lenora Brown/Christian Science Monitor
Ritesh Patel is the third generation of his family to run Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshment Room, one of the first establishments to sell the iconic food of Durban, South Africa — “bunny chow.”

Certain foods carry with them the unique history of a time and place. Such is the case with “bunny chow,” beloved in Durban, South Africa. No actual bunnies died for this vegetarian dish, the name of which is a linguistic misunderstanding. It all started with a lunchbox made of bread.

Ryan Lenora Brown writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “There are a few must-dos for any first-time visitor to Durban, a city of rolling hills in eastern South Africa. Among them: You must be sure to have a bunny.

“Wait, a what?

“Actually, bunny is short for bunny chow – but don’t be fooled. It’s not a rabbit, or a rabbit’s food. The Durban bunny chow is actually a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with spicy curry, and it’s this city’s star culinary attraction.

” ‘A bunny chow is to Durban what a pizza is to New York,’ says Ritesh Patel, part of the third generation at Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshment Room, a takeout joint that is one of Durban’s earliest bunny chow peddlers. …

“There are many legends of the bunny chow’s illustrious beginnings, but they all share a few common features. For one thing, it’s undoubtedly the creation of Durban’s Indian community, most of which arrived here as 19th century indentured laborers, shipped in by the British to work the sugar-cane plantations and railroads.

“It also probably owes its name to the banias, the city’s early Indian shopkeepers. By the early 20th century, several were running lunch counters. And then one day, the legend goes, one of them had a novel idea: hollow out a loaf of bread and fill it with beans curry. Voilà: a kind of low-budget, edible lunch pail for workers at the nearby factories and shops. ..

“Some versions of the lore, however, offer a darker reason. In early 20th-century South Africa, people of different skin colors often couldn’t share the same shops, the same neighborhoods, and certainly not the same restaurants. Enter the bania chow, a takeout meal that black customers could eat on the road.

“Whatever its precise origins, bania chow morphed into bunny chow. Joints selling the curry bread bowls proliferated along the length of the Grey Street Casbah, a multiracial stretch of shops, mosques, and apartment blocks through the center of Durban’s downtown. …

“Like many pockets of multiculturalism in South Africa, the Grey Street Casbah was known for its music (jazz), its gangsters (feared), and its politics (anti-establishment). In the earliest years of Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshment Room, the restaurant shared a road with the offices of a fiery young Indian lawyer who’d gotten into politics after being kicked off the white section of a local train. His name? Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. …

“Today, Grey Street is Dr. Yusuf Dadoo Street, renamed for an Indian titan of the anti-apartheid movement. Zulu gospel music jostles for space with calls to prayer from the gold-domed Juma Mosque down the road. Hawkers sell fat green avocados, roasted corn on the cob, and 25 kinds of knockoff brand name shoes, while prospective customers stream by chatting in Zulu, Shona, and Lingala.” Food can surmount cultural differences.

Read more about the history of this signature dish — and its future — at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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