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The Origins of Bunny Chow

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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

Tags: Food History