• Braai time: onglet steak with biryani spices (Toufic Charabati)Source: Toufic Charabati
Barbecues are loved the world over, but for South Africans ‘braai’ isn’t just a tasty meal, it’s a ritual that surpasses race, religion and economic status – bringing a divided nation together over smoky coals and marinated meats.
Siobhan Hegarty

10 Apr 2017 - 9:58 AM  UPDATED 12 Apr 2017 - 10:19 PM

More than a barbecue 

Somewhat confusingly, the word braai (pronounced ‘bry’) can be used as a noun, verb or adjective. You may put your meat on the braai, spend the day braaiing ribs or enjoy a feast of braaied boerewors come dinnertime. 

Lamb and beef are the staples – think onglet steak with biryani spices, lamb skewers (sosatie) or boerewors, a large coil of German-style pork and beef sausage. Lesser known local meats, such as ostrich or bok (antelope), sometimes make it on the menu, but it’s the accessibility of braai that makes it so popular. Supermarkets and butchers will often sell “braai packs” by the kilogram and most cuts of meat have become more affordable to the masses.

The Zulu term for braai is ‘shisa nyama’ (or ‘chisa nyama’) which translates literally as “burn meat” but refers to the art and process of barbecuing. Zulus and Xhosas are the two largest ethnic groups in South Africa and their culinary heritage is clearly visible in the sides. It’s customary to serve braai with pap (polenta-like maize porridge), roasted corn on the cob and umngqusho, a samp and bean stew.

But perhaps the biggest influence on braai comes from the legacy of Malay slaves. Transported from Dutch colonies in Indonesia during the 17th and 18th centuries, many Malays worked as professional cooks. They brought fruity chutneys, sweets, curries and – when it comes to braai – the secrets to aromatic meat rubs and spice-laden marinades.  

Making it official 

Ever since Paul Hogan promised to “slip an extra shrimp on the barbie” back in 1984, the act of barbecuing has been cemented into the Australian psyche. Americans too, particularly those in Southern states like Texas, view their grill skills and “low and slow” style of BBQ as a source of national pride.

But only in South Africa is the popular pastime of barbecuing known as ‘braai’ honoured with its own official day. Celebrated annually on 24 September, Braai Day (technically Heritage Day), sees the nation gathered around sizzling coals, celebrating with friends and family.

“There are so many things that are pulling us apart, [braai] has a wonderful potential to bring us all together,” -Desmond Tutu

South Africa’s Braai Day is bigger than a Sam Kekovich pitch to eat Aussie lamb. (Although multicultural messaging behind the recent ‘You Never Lamb Alone’ ad by the Meat and Livestock Australia is actually pretty similar.) The campaign to affiliate Heritage Day with braai kicked off in 2005 and, at the time, critics argued the idea was weak and potentially offensive. That was until Desmond Tutu got behind the cause.

Known best for his opposition of apartheid, the former Anglican Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize laureate became the patron of Braai Day in 2007. Tutu told reporters, “There are so many things that are pulling us apart, this has a wonderful potential to bring us all together”. And so in 2008, South Africa's National Heritage Council backed the Braai Day initiative – to the joy of meat-eaters everywhere.   

Braai-down in Cape Town

For many South Africans, braai is a tradition that’s enjoyed in the backyard or at a picnic spot. Like an Aussie barbie the grilling is a social activity in itself, and eating a casual affair. Because of this, there aren’t a great number of braai restaurants around South Africa, but they do exist. In Cape Town – home of Braai Day patron Desmond Tutu – you’re less likely to find an “at home experience”, and more likely to come across a meat-fuelled dance club. 

The inner city eatery aMadoda, for instance, serves chicken wings, pork chops and ama-chakalaka (spicy tomato relish) with a side of reggae, dancehall or African hip-hop. It’s a relaxed pub-like space where you can let the braai masters cook meat for you or hire a self-service braai pack and do the grilling yourself. Either way, remember there are no knives or forks, just a bowl to wash your hands.

Another proponent of this barbecue-meets-beats concept is Mzoli’s Place, located in Gugulethu, a township 15 kilometres from the CBD. With its tin roof, plastic chairs and lack of crockery or cutlery, this outdoor canteen is rustic, to say the least, but that doesn’t stop locals and tourists flocking for the smoky meat and deep house music. Opened in 2003 thanks to start-up funding from the Development Bank of South Africa, an initiative supporting black-owned and -run businesses, Mzoli’s has morphed from an informal garage butchery to a hive of food and entertainment. In some ways though, not that much has changed. Mzoli’s subscribes to a BYO philosophy – that means drinks, salads, serviettes and plates. Diners order their cuts from the meat counter before going to the grill guys who apply a ‘secret’ marinade and cook away. By dusk, a crowd will have gathered for the DJ set and inevitable meat sweats.


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.

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Pap, wors & chakalaka

If you ever get a chance to attend a picnic or barbecue organised by a South African, you most likely will get the chance to sample one of South Africa’s favourite staple dishes. Pap, wors and chakalaka is a much loved dish in South Africa, it is made up of maize/corn flour (paste), wors (South African sausage) and chakalaka which is a side dish comprising, tomatoes, onions, garlic, black pepper and other ingredients listed in the recipe. This dish is eaten at all occasions, and the fact that it’s relatively inexpensive makes it a very popular dish among South Africans of all social economic backgrounds. If you are having pap, wors and chakalaka at a barbecue then the most popular drink to accompany it will be a cold glass of beer and perhaps a cold glass of juice or fizzy drink for those under the age of 18 or anyone else who does not drink alcohol.