South African food is often difficult to classify – it is a metaphorical mixing pot of influences, due to its dense political and colonized past. Having been influenced by the Dutch settlers, the Zulu warriors, the British colonists and the post WWII expats, the flavors of South African cuisine are almost as diverse as its people. The food is spiced with ingredients from all over the world, creating flavors unique to sunny South Africa. One thing that is noteworthy for anyone visiting the country, and more specifically Durban, is the impact and the influence of Indian cooking and cuisine. Let’s break this down, so as to understand why the foods in Durban are so oriented toward international and South Asian influences.
An interesting fact that often shocks people is that Durban, South Africa, has the highest population of Indian people outside of India. That’s right – there’s nowhere else in the world, other than India itself, that has such a large Indian population. This is because in 1860, Indian laborers were imported to work on sugar plantations. Being so far from home leaves us with no surprise that flavors became integrated with society as well as varied from their original compositions. Once these times on the plantations were a thing of the past, Apartheid forced the Indian population – all across South Africa, but specifically Durban – to remain isolated due to segregation laws. This furthered the insular culture and progressed it such that now, in a free and democratic South Africa, time has morphed it into a sub-culture and there remains densely populated areas with Indian inhabitants.
Foundations of Food
Any cuisine has its foundations. For instance, Italian cooking relies heavily on garlic, tomatoes and basil. Thai cooking focuses on things like coconut, ginger and lemon grass. While you might not notice, you’ll find that dishes that originate in certain countries will always retain some stock ingredients. Most of the time, the origins of these choices come from what grows naturally in those countries as well as what those countries’ weather permits in terms of growing. Arguably, this is one of the reasons why Indian cuisine translated so well to South Africa, and specifically Durban. Both India and Durban are known for incredible humid air, meaning growing spices is particularly well-suited. Indian cooking is all about the spices – the chili, cumin, cardamom etc.
As a result of this population as well as the weather, Durban has become renowned for its Indian cuisine and more specifically its curries. However, this move happened many years ago, meaning that the food is no longer strictly Indian style. Additionally, certain aspects such as poverty – a result of segregation laws – as well as accessibility meant that certain products were scrapped from Indian dishes. For instance, coconut milk is used frequently in Indian cooking in India, but this was not as easy to come by in South Africa, and so it was replaced by cheaper, more accessible products like maize meal, locally referred to as “pap”, a staple of African food. Cooking in the shadow of India’s influence has formed a life of its own and there are almost exclusively South African dishes today. There are many dishes that are Indian-inspired, but won’t be found anywhere in India itself. Instead, it’d be found at a street market in Durban, or in the homes of families living all across South Africa. Here are some examples of South Africanized Indian cuisine:
Bunny Chow is a perfect example of hybrid recipes and the art of making do with what is available. Unsliced bread is hollowed out such that it becomes a bread bowl and it is filled with curry. Many misinformed people think that the word “bunny” is used because of the literal food they are eating, but it has nothing to do with the curried meat. It is a derivation of the Indian word “Bania,” which is translated to mean a merchant or spice trader. The story of how bunny chow emerged is one of the more interesting in South African food history. During Apartheid, both Zulu and Indian populations lived and worked in close proximity to one another, in rural KwaZulu-Natal. However, segregation laws meant that Indians were not allowed to serve Zulus within their restaurants. So, in order to trade without infringing on the law, they developed this consumable “take away box” that could be disguised as a loaf of bread.
Chakalaka is a particularly popular dish within the South African Indian community, as it incorporates the Zulu ingredient “amasi,” which is a fermented milk drink. Essentially, it is a relish. It is heavily spiced with Indian spices but includes vegetables such as lentils. It’s usually served with rice, or with pap – whichever is of easier access or is more affordable to the individual making it.
While samosas are still wildly popular in India, when spelt samoosa in South Africa and stuffed with potato, they become quite a popular South Africanized snack. Essentially, as you will have noticed, there is a pattern for what adaptions South African Indians have made and often, it’s supplementing with that which is cheaper. Considering the food’s popularity spiked and grew during Apartheid South Africa, it shouldn’t come as a shock that poverty influenced the cuisine so specifically. Potatoes are both cheap and easy to grow, meaning that spiced and stuffed into a samoosa is a delicious but inexpensive way to keep people fed and satisfied. Another variation of the samoosa to its counterpart internationally is that Pur pastry is used, making the product crispier. They reached a point in popularity that even common shops across South Africa carry Pur pastry, meaning that it’s easy for people to make samoosas at home. There you have it – the reasons why Durban is so famous for its Indian cuisine, as well as a few ideas of what foods to try next time you’re in the region. Rest assured you won’t be accidentally eating a rabbit when you tuck into a bunny chow, and pick the potato option of samoosas if you’re really trying to embrace the food world that has been created in this hot and beautiful region of South Africa.
This article originally appeared on Demand Africa.
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