Some great, hand-held foods come packed in bread — burgers and hot dogs are two treasures that spring straight to mind. For curry lovers, there’s a fistful of food with a seriously spicy, red-hot centerpiece. It’s called bunny chow, conceived in the big sea pot city of Durban, South Africa.
First things first. Bunny chow has nothing to do with Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. Or China for that matter. It’s simply spicy Indian curry served in a hollowed half-loaf of bread. In our recipe, it’s a delicious lamb curry that takes center stage.
Fired by bird’s eye chilies (in this case, African peri-peri peppers) and cayenne pepper, that central curry is powerfully spiced with cumin, cilantro, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, ginger, turmeric, fennel seeds, and fenugreek. Onions, garlic, tomatoes, and a few dried lime leaves complete the magic.
So, why bunny? Well, it’s most likely linked to the word bania. That’s a class of Indian merchants and traders involved with stuff like import and export, storekeeping, finance — and eateries. And the link to Durban? It stems from the city’s extraordinary ties with India that date back to 1860. That’s when colonial Britain began bringing in cheap labour from India to work on sugar plantations that were expanding across areas surrounding Durban. Sad to say, it’s a bleak tale about the abuse of mighty colonial power.
Happily, there’s an upside to that dark story. From those harsh, oppressed beginnings, the Indian community grew and prospered. And it did so to such an extent that Durban is often ranked as the city with the largest Indian population outside the motherland itself.
Not surprisingly, the place is renowned for offering its own, very distinctive riff on Indian cuisine — especially fiercely hot, vibrantly red curries. Although this long-established culinary influence became synonymous with Durban’s cuisine, by far its biggest impact was on one specific type of take-away food — curry-in-a-loaf.
Nobody knows for sure when this novelty was first served, who served it, or who named it. It probably first appeared in Durban during the late 1940s, and its primarily black, poor, and apartheid-oppressed purchasers tagged it as bunny chow — bania food.
The modern bunny chow
When something’s this good to eat, it doesn’t stay rooted in one place. Commonly known simply as ‘a bunny’, nowadays it’s popular right across South Africa.
The first bunnys were intended to be inexpensive, filling, portable and eaten with your hands. To keep prices low, the curry filling would have been a meatless mix of Indian spices, chili, sugar beans, potatoes, tomatoes, and onion. Handed to you in a sheet of newsprint, there were no fancy, budget-busting frills like plates and cutlery. The bread would have a been a white, standardized, ‘government’ loaf. This was halved and its centre hollowed-out to create a sort of square-sided bowl to hold the curry.
Today’s bunny can be very different creatures. How much bread you get is basically determined by the size of your appetite — and your billfold. Same goes for the fillings, which can range from common-or-garden basic to designer glamourous.
Our recipe is for a proper, fiery, Durban classic — a ‘mutton bunny.’ Sometimes known as a ‘half mutton’, it sticks to tradition with a fresh-as-possible, half-loaf of plain, white bread for each (hungry) diner. The hollowed halves are then filled with the type of rich, hot, and highly spiced lamb curry for which the bunny’s home town is so rightly famous.
It’s very much a meal for sharing
My top mate, Mike, was raised in Durban, and he’s a big bunny chow fan. In his early twenties he worked construction, and Friday was the day for sharing lunchtime bunnies with buddies — two half muttons for four eaters.
And there was protocol. You ate with your hands, taking turns to scoop up the curry with pieces of bread torn from the loaf. Most importantly, you were careful to eat a politely equal mix of lamb, potato, sauce, and bread.
As an added bonus to an immensely satisfying meal, that protocol adds another, delightful layer of pleasure. And that’s what bunny chow is really all about.
Durban Bunny Chow
For the curry
- 12 bird’s eye chilies red, dried, and roughly ground, seeds and all. I used the African variety — as opposed to Thai bird’s eyes. Either will be just fine. The dried sort do give a smokier flavor than fresh ones, and that’s why I like them.
- 2 pounds boneless lamb leg steak I bought a pair of steaks that were about 1 ½ inches thick and had a fat content of around 15%. Cut into 1/3 inch cubes. That size is just dandy for eating your bunny chow the right way — with your fingers.
- 2 all-purpose potatoes medium-sized, cut into a roughish 1/3 inch dice. Choose potatoes that are equally balanced between waxy and floury — such as Idahos.
- 2 yellow onions medium-sized, peeled, halved and cut into ¼ inch dice
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and thinly sliced
- 4 bay leaves
- 6 dried curry leaves
- 12 cherry tomatoes roughly chopped
- 1 can peeled plum tomatoes, 14-ounce can, roughly chopped, juice and all
- 3 sticks cinnamon I used ones that were about 2 ½ inches long and ½ inch wide
- 6 cloves roughly ground
- 6 green cardamom pods lightly crushed
- 1 heaped tablespoon fresh ginger root grated, skin and all
- 1 heaped tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon ground fennel seeds
- 1 tablespoon ground fenugreek
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cilantro
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground turmeric
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground sea salt
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons sunflower oil or another plain cooking oil
- 2 ½ cups water
For the bread
- 2 whole loaves fresh plain white bread, whole white sandwich loaves with nicely browned crusts are just grand
Cooking your bunny chows’ curry filling
- You’ll need a good size saucepan with a heavy base and a good lid. This is a one-pot dish, so the pan needs to be easily big enough to hold all the ingredients.
- The first task is to give batches of the cubed lamb a good browning all over. So, set your pan on a high heat and add the cooking oil. When it starts to shimmer — but before it gets to smoking — stir in the first batch of lamb. Drop the heat to medium-high and let the lamb sizzle away in that hot oil with a few turning stirs for about 5 minutes. You’re aiming to get a pretty even, dark browning all over. You want to do this in batches so that the lamb quickly browns in a single, evenly-spaced layer in the bottom of the pan. As each batch finishes browning, remove it with a slotted spoon and set it aside on a plate.
- Lower the heat to medium and add the onions to the pan. You want to fry the onions so that they soften and start to pick up a little golden color. A sort of slow-ish stir frying will get you there in about 7 minutes or so on that medium heat. Good.
- Now turn the heat to high and quickly stir in the chilies, garlic, ginger, cardamom pods, lime leaves, and bay leaves. You want to give the mix a pretty hot stir-frying for 2 minutes so that the garlic just starts to take on a bit of color. The moment that happens, drop the heat to medium, and stir in the cherry tomatoes, cayenne pepper, cumin, fennel seed, fenugreek, cilantro, turmeric, salt and black pepper. Give the pan a through stir so that everything gets well mixed together. Then stir in the potatoes, the can of chopped tomatoes and the water.
- Keep the heat on medium until the pan begins to bubble, then add the browned cubes of lamb — and all the juices from the plate they were sitting on. Give the pan a good stir, drop the heat to low and cover the pan. You now want your bunny chow’s curry to slowly simmer for about an hour — just until the potatoes cook right through. Give the curry a couple of stirs as it simmers, and, once the potatoes are done, turn off the heat. Sauce done.
- You’ll probably find the potatoes have absorbed a fair amount of salt, so check your sauce and maybe add more salt to your taste. Leave the pan covered while you prepare the loaves of bread.
Preparing the bunny chows’ bread
- This is easy. Cut each loaf in half. Now use your fingers to carefully pull out the soft centers from each half loaf. You’re aiming here to make a hollowed-out shell of outer crust with a base and side walls that are all a good 1/3 inch thick.
- Take some care not to break through the crusts — each hollowed half-loaf needs to be robust enough to be filled to the top — without leaking — with your curry.
- Now, the bread that’s been hollowed from the crusts can either be served on top of your bunny chows, or it can be used to make breadcrumbs for another day’s dish. That’s my preference.
Serving the bunny chow
- Filling the loaves and serving the bunny chows.
- Heat your curry sauce over a high heat until it just starts to bubble — as it’s heating to that point, give it a few stirs. Remove it from the heat. Time to fill your bunnys.
- Use a tablespoon to carefully fill each hollowed half-loaf right to its brim with curry. Try to avoid getting any of the sauce on the outside of the bread, and don’t fill the half-loaves so much that the curry overflows from the top. That’s it, ready to serve.
- Place all four filled bunnies onto a good size bread board or tray that will easily hold them all, and set the lot in the middle of your dining table.
- Encourage your fellow diners to tuck in — with their fingers — and to follow the protocol of equable bunny-sharing. Oh, and it’s best that everyone has a few napkins to hand.