OPEN MIC: James and the BUNNY CHOW

A scene from BUNNY CHOW by dir. John Barker

“What was that about?” asks GFI’s James Stowe as he explores the makings of the titular dish in our South African romp, BUNNY CHOW….

Have you ever seen a Global Lens film and wondered, “Hey, what is this custom or practice that seems fairly common to the characters but is completely foreign to me?” Every now and then, this happens to me. As someone who’s never had the opportunity to travel outside of the US, I tend to notice things in films that might have gotten lost in translation for someone unfamiliar with the cultural background of the film.

This month I decided to take a look at “bunny chow,” the titular dish of the South African film BUNNY CHOW, a part of the Global Lens 2008 series. The film is named after a popular South African delicacy, which one of the characters eats at the beginning of the film and serves as a metaphor for the rest of the film.

The city of Durban, South Africa, the birthplace of the film’s director, is home one of the largest populations of Indians outside of continental India and as such some common elements of Indian cuisine have become fairly common in this part of South Africa.

The eponymous dish

A prime example of this is the dish known as bunny chow. The dish consists of a meat (but not actually rabbit) or vegetarian curry served in a hollowed-out piece of bread. The bread removed from the middle, called the virgin, is used to cover the curry during cooking and often eaten as an appetizer.

There are a number of different stories explaining the origin of the dish, but the two things that they share in common is that the dish originated from Indian immigrants in South Africa and that there are no bunnies, or rabbits, involved.

The birth of bunny chow is estimated to be in the 1930′s-1940′s. According to one source, during the worldwide depression that followed World War II amid widespread food shortages, there was a premium for cheap food. The cheapest curry available in Durban came from members of the Bania caste, who commonly worked as merchants and traders. They were primarily vegetarian and made a delicacy from sugarbeans (a type of high protein kidney bean common in South Africa) and then served it in a piece of hollowed-out bread which acted as both dish and utensil. This became a common dish of the Indian sugar plantation workers who needed a quick daily meal.

Another origin story revolves around the numerous Bania-run restaurants in the Grey Street area of Durban. Caddies at the nearby Royal Durban golf course did not have long enough of a lunch break to visit these restaurants so they would send their friends to go fetch them curries for lunch. They would carry the curries in hollowed-out bread because there were no disposable dishes.

The tree of spice?

A third origin story takes place during Apartheid-era South Africa. Due to widespread segregation during that period, black South Africans were not allowed to enter many restaurants. The manager, named Bhanya, of one particular restaurant, G.C. Kapitan Vegetarian Restaurant, sold take-away meals to black patrons outside the restaurant, rather than turn away paying customers. The manager’s original take-away dish consisted of roti, an unleavened flatbread, and beans. The thin bread would soon fall apart, however,  so Bhanya replaced it with a piece of hollowed-out bread to hold the curry. Bhanya’s “chow” was born.

The last theoretical origin story comes from Indian traders who would peddle their curries underneath the iconic South African Banyan trees. Whether the bunny in the name comes from the Bania caste, Bhanya the restaurant manager, or from the Banyan tree, the general consensus seems to be that it is a delicious and popular South African street food.

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