It doesn't involve bunnies. In fact, the first versions were vegetarian.
By
Gina Flaxman

8 Dec 2016 - 4:30 PM  UPDATED 11 Apr 2017 - 10:53 AM

South Africa's melting pot of cultures has produced several great dishes but arguably the most iconic is the Indian-African classic, bunny chow. A hollowed-out bread filled with curry, it originated in Durban, home to one of the largest populations of Indians outside India, but the past few years have seen it gain popularity overseas.

There's a Bunny Chow restaurant in Tel Aviv; In London, a modern interpretation was last year's Most Innovative Breakfast at the Best Breakfast awards. Madiba in New York has been serving its version to trendy Brooklynites for several years now. There's even the occasional sweet version. And of course it's still popular in Durban. 

Since bunny chow was originally created to be eaten on the go, it's not surprising it's been adopted by the street-food scene, but these hipster versions often bear little resemblance to the original creation. At its messy, curry-soaked heart, bunny chow is a true working man's dish.

Its exact origins are unknown but most people believe it was created in the 1940s to feed hungry Indian labourers working on the sugar plantations. They were prohibited from entering restaurants so they would order takeaway meals from the side or back door.

The name 'bunny' has nothing to do with fluffy rodents and is believed to have been derived from Bania, the caste of Indian merchants who used to serve the takeaway curries. Serving the curry in the bread meant there was no need for a takeaway container. Many also believe the hardy Western loaf was a substitute for the traditional roti, which was too crumbly.

In Australia, Lucky Tsotsi in Sydney and Africola in Adelaide offer upmarket versions of bunny chow, and you can also find it at Caffe Vero in Perth and Afrofeast in Melbourne,  Australia's first African street-food truck started by Ugandan Dennis Grace.  In Sydney, traditional bunny devotees head to Durban Dish in Baulkham Hills, where South African Indian Aileen Naidoo and her family have been serving their signature dish to a mix of ex-pats and new converts since 2004.

"We are the only ones doing it in the authentic South African style," she says.

The most important aspect of a good bunny chow is its bread. Most modernised versions use a cob roll, brioche or sourdough bread, but the original is a plain loaf of unsliced white bread. It's cheaper but it's also more porous, which is important as it is essential that the bread soaks up the curry.

Aileen says she has a special baker making her breads so that the texture is right. Durban Dish serve one-third and half bunnies (a third or a half loaf of bread), but not the quarter or full bunnies also offered by Durban takeaways.

"Bunny chow started as vegetarian," says Aileen. "The meat ones took off later." A traditional vegetarian bunny is filled with a sugar bean curry; Aileen's version includes potato. She also does lamb and chicken bunnies. All are made from scratch and are served with a traditional salad of grated carrot on the side.

What is the best way to eat a bunny? "With your fingers," Aileen says firmly. The idea is to tear pieces of the bread to dip in the curry in the centre.

And the square piece of fluffy bread scooped out from the inside and placed on top of the bunny is not merely ornamental. Known as the plug or the virgin, bunny aficionados consider it the starter piece and advise dividing it in half if you're planning on sharing your bunny so that you both get to dip a piece in the rich gravy.

Then keep going, tearing off pieces of the bread walls until you reach the bottom, where the curry and bread become one. It's messy but truly delicious.

 

Have we got your attention and your tastebuds?  This week,The Chefs' Line is all about African cuisine. Tune in 6pm weeknights on SBS. Check out the program page for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more.

make your own
Bunny chow with bean curry and carrot salad

"Bunnies" were created in Durban, South Africa in the 1940s and remain a popular takeaway snack. They are often served in blank newsprint paper; similar to fish and chips. Remember to soak the beans overnight and prepare to get your hands dirty!