Bunny chow – South Africa’s own street food

by Jeanne on January 18, 2009

in Recipes - meat, Recipes - South African, South Africa, South African products

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**DISCLAIMER** – no fluffy bunnies were harmed in the making of this dish!!

Phew.  Just thought I'd get that disclaimer out of the may before people started hurling abuse, shoes or frying pans :)

Street food – it's such a great concept.  Something cheap and readily available, sold on the streets in a portable format, and eaten by the average local.  Think Leberkaese rolls in Austria; grilled corn on the cob in Morocco; falafel or shawarma throughout the Middle East; frites with mayonnaise in Belgium; poutine in Canada; tacos in Mexico; chilli dogs and corn dogs in the USA; and arepas in Venezuela. 

In South Africa, we have the usual collection of generic international street food like hamburgers, fried chicken, or fish and chips, but here and there you will find some truly South African food being sold on the streets.  Uputhu, a stiff maize porridge, is commonly sold to commuters with a ladleful of stew. Boerewors rolls (spicy South African sausage, barbecued and served in a roll) are popular throughout the country and almost every shopping centre has a vendor outside selling these on a Saturday morning.  Or you could head for Durban in Kwa-Zulu Natal to sample another home-grown favourite:  bunny chows.

There is some discussion as to the origin of this steet food which broadly consists of curry ladled into a scooped-out loaf of bread. One theory is that it originated at a restaurant in Durban's Grey Street when, in the early 1900s, caddies from the Royal Durban Golf Club were unable to get enough time off over lunch to dash to predominanty Indian Grey Street to pick up a curry for lunch.  The caddies would ask their friends to bring back curries for them and because there were no polystyrene containers back then, the shopkeepers sent the curry in holowed out loaves of bread.  There was also no disposable cutlery, so the bread was useful as a tool to dip into the curry and use instead of a fork.  This theory might also explain the rather unusual name:  the shopkeepers on Grey Street were called banias (an Indian caste of merchants), and "bunny" could be a corruption of this. Another similar theory is that bunny chows originated as a means for the (mostly Indian) labourers to take lunch onto the sugar cane plantations of Kwa-Zulu Natal in the days before disposable containers.

The curry used in a bunny chow varies according to taste – chicken, lamb, beef or vegetable are all popular, and the level of heat varies (beware – Durbanites like theirs HOT!). The bread component of a bunny chow may be a whole, half or quarter white loaf, and the scooped out centre (known as the virgin) is replaced on top of the curry before serving.  The virgin is then dipped into the gravy before and eaten as an appetiser, and it is considered very bad form indeed to take somebody's virgin without asking ;-).  As the level of the curry drops, you can rip off bits of the bread bowl to use instead of cutlery – so all in all it's a fun but potentially messy meal and not suitable for first dates or important business lunches!

Bunny chow terminology is a minefield for the uninitiated.  When suggesting to friends that you should go and get bunny chows for a meal, using the word "chow" marks you out as a clueless foreigner – the correct term would be "let's go get some bunnies for lunch".  And when ordering, you shouldn't even use the word bunny – you merely order a whole, half or a quarter, depending on the portion of bread you want, and specify the type of filling you want (e.g. a half beef, or a whole chicken).  And be very careful if you have a funny bunny – this is a bunny made from the centre of the loaf rather than the end and, as such, has no crust at the base.  Make sure you support the base, otherwise your friends will quickly let you know where the "funny" part of the name came from :)

The recipe below is a great basic lamb curry and could also be served on rice.  If you are making bunny chows though, be sure there is enough liquid for plenty of gravy:  you want the gravy to soak properly into the bread "bowl".  I was lucky enough that my lovely friend Simla brought back a packet of Osmans Taj Mahal roasted Durban madras curry powder for me last time she went home, which I use in my curry - but you could use any ready-mixed curry powder that you like (Rajah madras curry powder would work well if you like it hot).  You can also add chopped chillies at the end to spice up individual portions if some diners like it hotter than others.  And as always, if you have time try to make the curry a day in advance because the flavours always improve on the second day.

So what are you waiting for?  Try these for yourself and experience the authentic taste of South African street food!

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BUNNY CHOW (serves 4)

Ingredients:

1 kg lamb, cubed
1 medium onion, sliced thinly into rings
2 large tomatoes or 1x400g tin chopped tomatoes
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2-3 curry leaves
1 stick cinnamon
4 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed 
1.5 tsp crushed ginger
1.5 tsp crushed garlic
4 tsp Durban masala (or substitute shop-bought curry powder,as hot or mild as you like)
1 tsp ground turmeric
2 tsp garam masala
3-4 potatoes, cubed
Salt
1 or 2 (depending on the size) crusty, square loaves of bread
Fresh coriander leaves to garnish

Method:

Cube the meat and slice the onion; peel and dice the tomato.

Heat the oil and add the cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, onion and curry leaves. Fry until the onion is light golden brown in colour.

Add the masala mix (or curry powder), turmeric, ginger, garlic and tomato.  Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mix resembles a puree.

Add the meat and cook for about 10 minutes. Then add the poatoes and about 1/4 cup of water.  Lower the heat and simmer over low heat until the meat is tender and the potatoes cooked.  Keep an eye on it to make sure the bottom of the pot does not burn.

When the meat is cooked through and the potatoes are tender (about 30 minutes), add the garam masala mixture. Test for seasoning and add salt if necessary. Simmer for a further 10 minutes on a low heat.

In the meantime, take a fresh loaf of white bread  – it needs to be crusty on the outside with a nice, soft crumb.  Little farmouse loaves half the size of standard loaves are ideal.  Halve the loaf and scoop out the soft white crumb, leaving the crust to form a "bowl". 

Spoon the curry into the half loaf and serve, garnished with coriander leaves.  The soft crumb can be dipped into the curry and eaten as well.

As featured on Channel4 Food

Take a look at Veggiebelly's vegetarian version.

 

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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

Bellini Valli January 18, 2009 at 7:48 pm

Wandering the streets of a country you can come across so many different taste sensations. Here in Canada they also have Beaver Tails which are basically a fried dough sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.

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Darius T. Williams January 19, 2009 at 1:04 am

The bunny chow looks amazing…this is what I need, right now!

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Jillian January 19, 2009 at 2:27 am

This sounds (and looks!) amazing, but the vegetarian in me wonders what veggies you would use in place of the lamb?
Cheers!

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Jenn N January 19, 2009 at 2:55 am

Thank you! I visited Durban for the second time this past summer and finally got around to eating Bunny Chow. I also posted about it during my travels and now I can make it right here in Canada. Thank you.
Jenn N
http://jenn.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/06/bunny-chow-packing-up.html

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nina January 19, 2009 at 5:56 am

Darn you beat me to this one! I was going to do one later this year, but this one looks so good, that I will not dare to copy or compete. You are a true ambassador, Jeanne!
Guess I’ll have to do one of a “salomi” or a “gatsby”. Do you know them??

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yes2property January 19, 2009 at 7:54 am

This is one of those things you must experience when visiting Durban. We used to prepare this for our children at school then we used bread rolls.

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Kit January 19, 2009 at 10:50 am

I was quite perplexed when I came across the bunny chow at one of our school spring fairs. I’d never come across the idea of curry in a roll before, but we sold out of them in record time. My kids haven’t been brought up to them and don’t really ‘get’ them though – there’s still time!

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herschelian January 19, 2009 at 12:14 pm

I LURVE Bunny Chow. Two years ago South African friends who live here in London gave a big party to celebrate a 50th birthday and they served Bunny Chow. The non-SA guests were slightly taken aback when issued with half loaves of bread and big pots of curry – both lamb and veggie – to choose from, but they were soon won over and there wasn’t a crumb left by the end of the evening. It really is an excellent (and unusual) way of catering for a crowd.

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grace January 19, 2009 at 1:27 pm

how cool! i love the look of this, and that’s only the beginning. the flavors must be outstanding…and now i want to be on the street. in south africa. :)

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Manggy January 19, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Madras for me! Consider me an honorary Durbanite ;) Looks faaantastic! (I wish I had my spices with me!)

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Bordeaux January 19, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Would you believe me if I tell you I’ve never had a bunny chow? I’ve always wanted to try it, but never have! I have had those boerewors roll in downtown Joburg after a night of clubbing though and they’re great. So my goal for when I go back to SA is to try bunny chow. Thanks for reminding me, and yours look super. Especially with the touch of cilantro.

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Scott at Realepicurean January 19, 2009 at 6:00 pm

Street food is always great. This looks really interesting!

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Nilmandra January 19, 2009 at 8:40 pm

Looks great, thanks for sharing this South African street food. I love street food particularly in Asia. This curry bread reminds me of the ‘Golden Pillow’ (http://www.goldenpillow933.com.sg/about.htm) in Singapore, which is curry enclosed within a large loaf of bread.

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Michelle January 19, 2009 at 9:39 pm

Ahem, I guess I’m not a proper South African, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Bunny Chow, never mind eat one. When I was going to school we used to go to Durban for holidays, but hung out at places like The Royal Hotel, so street food wasn’t really on the menu. Very informative post!

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catering equipment January 20, 2009 at 3:02 pm

Nice disclaimer!!

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The Art of Successful Cooking January 20, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Thanks for the heads up on the correct terminology – we’ll look like real locals when we go!

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Wendy T January 20, 2009 at 10:05 pm

That looks fantastic! Just what I would like to be eating right now…:)

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Dragon January 21, 2009 at 1:19 am

I would never throw a frying pan at you. Maybe a bunny, but not a frying pan. :)

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Rosemary January 21, 2009 at 8:18 am

Wonderful post! Having grown up in Durban this was a family favourite. Will have to do the Cape Town version – The Gatsby!

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lesley January 21, 2009 at 12:56 pm

This looks great & I’m going to make it for our friends from Durban when they visit next month, (without telling them what it is), I wonder if they’ll recognise it. :0)

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courtney January 22, 2009 at 3:56 am

O h yumm. You need to write a South African cook book to introduce us all to these wonders. I havent heard of this but its right up my alley. Curried lamb!

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Kate Zeller January 22, 2009 at 1:17 pm

But I like bunny….

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Tongue-Tickle January 22, 2009 at 2:25 pm

no excuses then why you wont be visiting me when you’re around in march then!
i promise to make you a proper home-style durban bunny, trimmings AND ALL!
il even gooi a pukka accent for good measure!
finalised your tickets yet? ..
and you know, im actually drooling here!

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Gill January 22, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Love, love, love bunny chow – there is nothing to beat it on a miserable Winter’s day, to chase away the blues.

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Kevin January 24, 2009 at 1:41 am

That sounds good and I really like the idea of serving it in a crust of bread!

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Xander January 26, 2009 at 12:07 am

I have to admit that the name ‘bunny chow’ put me off when I first heard it– maybe that’s why I never tried it. That looks delicious though, and I’m really eager to try it once Bordeaux and I have moved back to South Africa. -X

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Peter January 26, 2009 at 3:04 am

I’m delighted when Nina and yourself post novel SA dishes which are new to most of us. Keep’em coming!

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Nazarina A February 5, 2009 at 12:44 am

I used to eat these when I was living in Pietermaritzburg.Cozy Corner in Wynberg ( Cape town) also made these. I do miss them so. Yours look so delicious, it is making me a little homesick. Maybe I should make it, you have inspired me to do so!!!

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Nazarina A February 5, 2009 at 12:44 am

I used to eat these when I was living in Pietermaritzburg.Cozy Corner in Wynberg ( Cape town) also made these. I do miss them so. Yours look so delicious, it is making me a little homesick. Maybe I should make it, you have inspired me to do so!!!

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Nazarina A February 5, 2009 at 12:44 am

I used to eat these when I was living in Pietermaritzburg.Cozy Corner in Wynberg ( Cape town) also made these. I do miss them so. Yours look so delicious, it is making me a little homesick. Maybe I should make it, you have inspired me to do so!!!

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Carolyn McNamara June 4, 2009 at 5:38 am

Hi Jeanne,
You sound FRANTIC – don’t let the buggers get to you hey? _ I just key into Google – cooksister and your site comes up immediately!! So I am not losing out OK – hope you can solve your problem soon Jeanne.
Just please keep up the good work.
Cheers
Carolyn
South Australia

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tastebud June 5, 2009 at 2:08 pm

well us lucky cape townians now have our very own gourmet bunny shop called The Quarter in long street, opened by Bruce Robertson a couple of weeks ago. Fab traditional bunnies,(Even goat)Gourmet bunnies – e.g croque monsieur, prawn and fish, welsh rarebit, oxtail,slap on a topping e.g salsa,chakalaka slaphakskeentjie salsa or pap n biltong and dollop on a sauce aioli, bearnaise,prego or bbq with side order,pap n sweet corn samp n beans or mash and gravy. Yummy and Innovative no doubt.
tastebud

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Crystal Degenhardt July 9, 2009 at 8:08 am

Hi Jeanne
As a fellow South African abroad, I was thrilled to find your site and really enjoyed finding your bunny chow recipe. Thanks!

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Belinda July 13, 2009 at 1:47 am

Hi, I’m hosting a South African themed party (living in Australia now – have to educate the aussies!) and I tested out your recipe for a bunny chow, but substituted beans instead of meat. For some reason my curry came out really bitter – do you have any idea why this would happen? I couldn’t get hold of Durban masala, and just used store-bought curry powder. I thought that maybe I should leave out the turmeric next time, or I might have burnt the spices? (I added all the spices and cooked for a minute before adding the tomatoes – maybe that was my mistake.) Any insight would be really appreciated!

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Jonny December 4, 2009 at 9:48 pm

i can’t believe I’ve never heard of this before! I’ve been to plenty of brai’s with saffa friends in london but nobody ever mentioned a bunny. Now I need to have it in my life. It might be too cute, and it might not be traditional, but I wonder if one could make a bunny with curried rabbit?

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PinkPolkaDot February 16, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Wow, this looks yummy!!

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charlie May 4, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Go to 1860 in South Croydon for the best Bunny Chow in London!
http://www.eighteensixty.co.uk

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Karl Adcock July 2, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Hi there. Very impressed to find someone sharing recipes like these.
Do you perhaps know how they make the salsa for the bunny chows. would really appreciate any info. Thanks. Karl

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Karl Adcock July 2, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Having just read my post I believe it is called sambles and not salsa.
Thanks

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Wink Bingo Review December 18, 2010 at 6:19 am

Ohh dear ,its look really great, Still my mouth is melting to seen this delicious, Its look really yummy. thanks for share it. I cant wait to eat it.

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Royjoerice April 28, 2011 at 4:15 am

Looks great.

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Ursula May 10, 2011 at 6:47 pm

In the Cape, this “bread bowl” food is most typically made with pickled curried fish. I’m not sure if it’s still called “bunny chow” …

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Thuli February 4, 2013 at 12:38 pm

I love this post Jeanne…and the pics look amazing!

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Jeanne February 6, 2013 at 6:37 pm

Thanks Thuli! Love me a good bunny chow… Need to tackle a gatsby next!

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Vosperd Ruiter November 26, 2013 at 7:03 am

Thanks so much for this recipe! It looks delicious. I have linked to this site on my blogpost http://vosperdruiter.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/fragrant-ailsas-weekly-travel-theme/ so that more people may enjoy your cooking!

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Jonathan Simmons April 8, 2014 at 2:51 pm

Soooo delicious!! For anybody that ever visit South Africa, the best bunny chow is made in Durban. I am from Cape Town, South African and have eaten my fair share of bunny chows but visited a friend in Durban and found they are so much better.

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Okkie July 21, 2014 at 1:48 am

There was a take away place in the central part of Kimberley (north cape) called the chilli tree that used to do these. The quater loaf one got the name Katkop [the hole is only big enough to vit the cat's head] was only 2 block from my office and got regular support from me.

For Jon’s info ….. you could choose between chicken, lamb, beef or rabbit. Once you have tried the last option the others become second class.

Unfortunately the local rabbit breeder changed over to the wool producers and the line was discontinued

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