With South Africa’s 11 official languages it can be difficult for people to communicate with one another. There is one word though that is known and understood across all of the national languages: Braai. What’s a braai you ask? A braai (pronounced ‘bry’), is the South African version of a barbeque, but to compare it to an American barbeque is an insult to Saffas everywhere. A braai is so much more than just throwing meat on a grill, to us, it’s a part of our culture and how we identify ourselves as a society. We don’t just braai over three day weekends, we braai year-round for every occasion: from funerals to birthdays, graduations to farewells, heck, we braai even when we don’t have an occasion to. Braais are so important to us and such a large part of our culture that on September 24th we celebrate Heritage Day, otherwise known as National Braai Day. Simply put, to braai is in our blood and encompasses a large part of who we are as South Africans.
For South Africans, a braai is about more than just the food, it’s an experience and an all-day affair. Braais normally start in the early part of the day when the men start to prepare the fire. Using a gas grill can be considered a sin in South Africa, depending on who you talk to, so preparing the grill takes a great deal of time. While the men surround the fire enjoying a dop (the Afrikaans term used for a refreshing alcoholic beverage) and keeping a watchful eye over the coals, the women are busy inside preparing the sides, desserts, and appetizers, and keeping the children at bay. When the fire is finally ready, the braaiing part of the braai actually begins. What do we braai? Anything and everything. Most braais have at least two proteins that range between steak, lamb, pork, wild game, sosaties (kebabs), and boerewors (a sausage native to South Africa). We do braai chicken, but most Saffas would tell you that chicken is a vegetable, not meat. What truly separates an American barbeque and a South African braai is the amount of flavor and spices that we manage to get out of our food, especially the meat. We LOVE flavor and our culture has a great deal of it thanks to the Cape Malay populations love of chutneys, curries, and other aromatic flavors as well as the peri-peri, which was introduced by the Portuguese settlers, both of which have been imprinted on the South African palate.
While the meat is the main attraction, the meal would not be complete without a delicious spread of side, salads, and puddings (desserts). One of my favorite braai side dishes is a braai broodjie, a sandwich, cooked on the grill, consisting of tomatoes, onions, cheese, and a sauce made of South African mayo and Mrs. Ball’s Chutney. Other sides include pasta salad, South African homemade potato salad, a variety of vegetables, and of course, pap and sous. Pap and sous is another very traditional dish served at almost every braai. Pap is made of white corn meal and can be compared to what American’s know as grits, except it is not cooked in milk or with an obscene amount of cheese. Sous (sauce) is a combination of tomatoes, onions, a little bit of sugar, and salt and pepper that is cooked low and slow and is served over the pap and sometimes the boerewors as well. Depending on the season, dessert varies from ice cream to melk tert (milk tart), from to fridge tarts to malva pudding, sometimes even a combination of these. But just because dessert has been served doesn’t mean braai has come to an end, oh no the braai has only just begun. Braais last until the early hours of the morning and often times leads into breakfast the next day. Braais truly have a way of bringing people together where they tell stories, laugh, cry, or even a combination of the three. To have a braai you only truly need good food and good company. I truly hope each of you reading this gets to experience a true South African braai at least once in your life, because honestly, it is one of the best experiences that you’ll ever have.