The name’s misleading, Durban’s most famous spicy delight does not have two long ears, a fluffy tail and hop around on your plate. It’s a delicious half loaf or quarter loaf of fresh white bread filled to the brim with a steaming hot curry. And nothing says you’ve arrived in South Africa’s steamy coastal city more than when you tuck into a pukka bunny chow. Available in just about any curry house (if it’s not on the menu you’ve just got to ask for it), the bunny chow is as prevalent as the humidity which blankets this diverse metropolis with thick moist air.
Durban is no doubt the centre of the bunny chow’s origin. Home to the largest population of people of Indian descent outside of India, there are however, at least three theories about exactly why and how bunny chow was born:
A restaurant run by people known as ‘Banias’ (Indian tradespeople), hence the word ‘bunny,’ first created the scooped-out bread and curry dish to serve food to Indians who were not allowed in certain shops and cafes during the apartheid era. The shop-owners found a way of serving the workers through the back windows, which became known as takeaways.
Indian migrant workers from India who were brought to South Africa to work on KwaZulu-Natal’s sugar cane plantations needed a way to carry their lunches to the field. The hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with their vegetarian curries was a convenient way to do this.
Fisherman used the bunny chow as a container to carry their meals while out fishing all night.
Ingenious but essentially simple and tasty street food, the bunny chow is any type of curry (chicken, beef, vegetable, beans or even prawns) served in a half or quarter of a hollowed-out loaf of white bread with the scooped-out bread forming the ‘bowl.’ The bread that has been removed forms the lid and can be used to dig out the delicious contents. Local etiquette dictates that the eating is done strictly by hand, by tearing off the side of the loaf and dipping the spongy bits of bread into the gravy. Tip: don’t take pieces off the loaf that are below the gravy line.
If you’re looking for a bunny chow with a sea view then the Seabelle in Desainagar about fifteen minutes north of Durban is just the ticket. We arrived on a beautifully still and sunny Saturday afternoon and ordered two mutton curry bunnies for ourselves and fish and chips for the little people. Even though I love curry, I do prefer it mild to avoid an unpleasant eye watering, nose running affair. Bradley, our waiter, said they could accommodate me with medium to mild only. “We don’t do mild,” he said. I guess mild has no street cred in these parts so I went with his suggestion. Of course, we couldn’t eat a bunny chow without beer, so those were ordered too. Our bunnies arrived bursting with flavour. We sprinkled some sambals (coriander, tomato and onion) over the top and tucked in. The spicy fragrances filled the humid air and it was quite simply divine and quite simply a taste of Durban.
The iconic bunny chow can be found at another one of Durban’s famous attractions, the splendid five-star Oyster Box Hotel. Hotel Head Chef, Luke Nair, fondly remembers the dish from his school days, when he and his friends would share a half loaf between the four of them. “It’s a quick and easy way to eat a curry. There’s no plate, no cutlery but in some restaurants, it does come with a wet wipe,” he laughs. Having cooked for the Queen of England as well as many other celebrities over the years, Chef Luke is no stranger to the rigours and delights of cordon bleu cooking and says the hotel also serves bunnies on their much-celebrated menu. “The bunny chow has come a long way and it comes in different versions at the Oyster Box. We have a little cocktail bunny which forms part of our finger food menu and we also have a seafood option which features two crayfish, prawns and a bottle of champagne. It’s more like art,” he enthuses.
Whether a simple spicy takeaway or a work of art adorning a plate in one of the world’s most recognisable hotels, the bunny chow has made a name for itself as a dish for everyone to enjoy and is certainly here to stay.
*Bunnies : The correct way locals refer to Bunny Chows.
*The dish was sold in Gweru (Zimbabwe) during world war two
*The vegetarian version is called beans bunny
*The cut out piece of bread that sits on top of the curry is called “virgin”
*It’s typically served in the previous day’s newspapers.