Food History 101

The Origins of Bunny Chow

By • July 26, 2013 • 12 Comments

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In Strange Food History, we're hitting the books -- to find you the strangest, quirkiest slices of our food heritage.

Today: What is bunny chow, and how did it become one of South Africa's most important dishes?

Bread from Food52

The first thing you’ll notice about the South African dish Bunny Chow -- a spicy curry ladled into a hollowed-out loaf of bread -- is that no rabbits were harmed in its preparation. The second thing is that it’s incredibly portable, a curry lover’s answer to a lunch box. And the third thing you won’t really notice at all but it’s what makes Bunny Chow so interesting: that it's a dish mired in legend, its origins a murky tribute to a South Africa’s past. 

Bunny Chow originated in Durban’s Indian community during the apartheid area. From 1948 to 1994, apartheid laws forbid blacks from entering restaurants or cafes, so they took to ordering take-out meals from the sides or backdoors of restaurants. The most popular dish at the time was roti and beans, but roti, a thin wheat bread akin to a crepe, fell apart easily if not eaten immediately. Indian proprietors began using loaves of bread as take-out containers for curries and the “Bunny Chow” -- South Africa’s most popular fast food -- was born.  

Bread from Food52

There is another origin story, too. In this tale, the dish emerged as the result of hungry Indian golf caddies. Unable to travel from the golf course to Grey Street in Durban for lunch, they arranged for their friends to bring them meals. In a fit of ingenuity spawned by a lack of appropriate containers, the restaurant owner poured the curry into a loaf of bread.

In both stories, “Bunny” is a permutation of the word Bania, an Indian caste of merchants who sold the curries. The meal, which is served with chicken, lamb, vegetables, or mutton, sits in the type of rectangular white loaf reminiscent of Wonder Bread. They’re available in quarter, half, or full sizes, and the hollowed-out lump of bread that sits on top of the finished dish is called a “virgin." The sauce is a thick homage to home-cooked stews, lightly spiced with coriander, turmeric, and cumin. It’s eaten without utensils -- and if you’re not careful, an overzealous rip of bread sends the curry spilling tumultuously, disastrously onto the plate below.  

Bunny Chow by Madeline Grimes

Serves 4

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
2 large white onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger
1 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon cumin
3 tablespoons garam masala
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more to taste)
2 teaspoons tumeric
2 ground cardamom pods
2 tomatoes, diced
2 cups carrots, diced
2 cups potatoes, cubed
2 large, boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1-2 cup chicken stock or water
2 unsliced loaves of crusty white bread, each cut across in half in the middle and most of inside hollowed out like a bread bowl

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

Jump to Comments (12)

Tags: history, strange food history, food history, bunny chow, curry, south africa

Comments (12)

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Stringio

about 1 year ago Sarah Dawson

Great post. I grew up in Durban eating bunnies, and I can say from experience that getting a good bunny chow outside of Durban, even in other SA cities is not easy. One point of correction though; if the bread breaks the curry should spill onto you lap, not a plate. Eating a bunny chow off a plate is very bad form!

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about 1 year ago happybelly

Bunny Chow was not only available at "Bunny Chow Joints". It was/is a common form of lunch for many poor laborers as it is cheap and no utensils are needed. They would buy a half loaf of bread (which in SA is much sturdier than in the States) and a can of sardines in tomato sauce, or a can of curried fish (a very traditional South African staple), with cans supplied with a wind open device. The bread is hollowed out by hand and the seafood of choice dumped in, providing a very filling meal for very little money. Here it truly was a case of necessity being the mother of invention.

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about 1 year ago dymnyno

I like the sound of this recipe but wish you had included more "instructive" pictures. Regarding the knives...right up there with my husband using my favorite knives for opening boxes. Your pic does make a nice contrast of the soft loaf of bread and the hard grey slate which is a success.

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about 1 year ago Panfusine

Been fortunate to eat Bunny Chow at one of the original Bunny Chow joints when I lived in South Africa, Given up trying to replicate the original flavor of the vegetarian version curry (which I remember was particularly redolent of Cinnamon), but I still serve up loaves (or even scooped out sourdough loaves) at home with lentil & veggie versions.

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about 1 year ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Panfusine, so happy to see you here! I'm sure your vegetarian Bunny Chow is delicious, whether or not it perfectly replicates the stuff served up in the Bunny Chow joints your frequented. ;o)

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about 1 year ago susan g

Panfusine, you are too modest. Here is her recipe, and 3 others on the site. http://food52.com/recipes...

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about 1 year ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

This is so interesting -- and I plan to forward the piece to family and friends with ties to South Africa -- but that photo of a loaf of bread, just cut, on a stone slab, makes me feel terribly sorry for your knives. Ouch. Can this be chalked up to a rookie error in food styling, or am I unduly concerned about running a knife blade across stone? ;o) P.S. Either way, the FOOD52 photo studio would do well to find a well-worn crumb box -- or perhaps offer a gorgeous artisanal one in the Provisions Shop -- to kick its bread photos up a notch. Just saying.

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about 1 year ago MrsMehitabel

Antonia, I'm married to a knife maker, and that does kind of set my teeth on edge as well. But maybe whoever it was made sure to be very careful when the blade was mostly through- perhaps they even picked up the loaf a bit for the last part of the cut! I'm pretty sure that's what happened. ;)

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about 1 year ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Alas, on a site that has as a primary purpose the sharing of useful knowledge, especially to less experienced cooks, the example set is regrettable, indeed. ;o)

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about 1 year ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Executive Editor of Food52

As MrsMehitabel correctly suggested, we were careful not to slice the knife into the slate -- no knives were harmed! As home cooks, food professionals, and stylists, we adapt to the equipment at hand -- and slice carefully on any presentation board (for the sake of both the board and the knives).

Your point has been taken -- this wasn't intended as an instructional post on knife care and I hope that this doesn't overshadow Madeline Grimes' great article.

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about 1 year ago Ed Rechts

What, all that colorful history and description, then just a picture of the bread loaf? Pretty lame for the Food52 blogs I've come to enjoy. C'mon, man.

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about 1 year ago Sarah Jampel

Sarah is Food52's assistant editor.

I loved reading this piece! At first, I thought bunny chow would be like puppy chow (http://en.wikipedia.org..., but carrot-flavored.

Is there anywhere outside of South Africa that you can get Bunny Chow?