FANCY a bunny chow in Beijing? How about Brisbane or New York, Sydney or Edinburgh? The curry-filled half loaf is popping up all over the globe, in part due to South Africans opening eateries that showcase the cuisine to the locals and provide a taste of home to large numbers of expats. It is also a result of the growing popularity of street food and food trucks. Bunnies have been sold from these mobile restaurants from LA to London.
Live in Durban and you can have your bunny from a different restaurant every day of the month. Reside overseas, and the taste of SA is hard to come by. National dishes tend to carry emotional baggage. For South Africans hungry with gustatory memory, the bunny chow must fulfil many needs. It is sad enough having to eat it with gloves on, wrapped in a thick coat in a light snowfall. Not exactly downtown Durbs. So the taste had better transport, support one’s memories, and placate the homesickness.
French writer Marcel Proust famously described the pleasure of reverting to childhood simply by dipping his madeleine into a cup of tea. In an instant he was back with his beloved aunt Léonie and their shared teatime rituals. Food enables time travel, breathing deeply into the past. Of course, our memories play games and often the magic has grown in our minds to proportions that can’t be realised.
What happens when an iconic dish makes its way in the world? How does food migrate? Should it retain its authenticity or should it be allowed to assimilate in its new environment?
Wherever South Africans are making bunnies abroad they are generally serving the traditional version, even if local conditions demand some adaptation. Forks are on offer everywhere as eating with one’s fingers is considered too messy.
Shebeen Bar in Edinburgh imports its spices from Durban, but tones down the heat of the bunny to make it “attractive” to the British palate. They use a custom-made round bread, which GM Corné van Jaarsveld explains “looks more presentable” to local diners.
In the American east coast town of Eastham, chef Sanette Groenewald of Karoo restaurant had an incredulous response from her suppliers when she requested a “government loaf” of white bread. Only sliced bread is available in the area, so she uses a sourdough bowl. Her menu needs to carry the reassuring message “does not contain bunnies”.
At Pinotage restaurant in Beijing, a Chinese chef cooks bunny chow “as close as possible to the South African recipe”, reports Toby Cao. The dish is popular with expats while Chinese customers are surprised by the presentation.
Chantal Nell of Boerie en Bunny serves a traditional Durban bunny in London’s Camden market. Her customers come to eat “something different”, and the strange name is part of the fun.
In the hipster area of Shoreditch, a company called Bunnychow has taken up the concept of bunny as a “portable, edible lunchbox” and strives to make it “modern and global”, says spokesman Lyndsay Anderson. Fillings include a full English breakfast, smoked haddock and sweetcorn soup (bunny chowder) or pork and pickled slaw. The bunnies have “a nod to tradition through using South African flavours”.
Some may argue that a bobotie burger bunny or one filled with meatballs and monkeygland sauce is a long way from home. Those with strong feelings about terroir decry any attempt to modernise the bunny and fear that it could lose its soul.
“As a South African you’re more protective of it,” says Groenewald. “It’s an integrity thing. I could take a calzone and put boerewors in there and say, ‘To hell with what you guys think a calzone should be.’ But don’t mess with the bunny!”
Groenewald has strong views about authenticity. “If you want to use the name bunny, you need to stick close to the original. If you don’t have it in a half loaf and it’s not a curry, it’s not a bunny”.
Van Jaarsveld echoes this sentiment: “It’s not a bunny chow if you go ahead and put in something different. It’s like calling a ribeye a sirloin, it’s not the same thing.”
Boerie en Bunny’s Nell hails from Durban and voices strong objections to tampering with an authentic dish with a long pedigree. “It’s part of our history, it’s part of our culture.” she says.
Bunny is turning out to be controversial in other ways too, falling foul of the food faddists. Some outlets in London report that bunnies are more popular with men because women don’t want to eat carbohydrates. Some notice that women eat the filling only. Boerie en Bunny serves rice as an alternative to bread as many Londoners avoid gluten. Bunnychowdown in Brisbane is one eatery selling more bunny to women. Perhaps Queensland has avoided the drive towards reducing one’s carb footprint.
SA is not alone in popularising a white loaf as the basis for a meal.
Hong Kong has the Honey Toast Box — a block of hollowed out bread, slathered with butter and honey, toasted in the oven, filled with ice cream and often topped with caramel sauce and nuts. I suspect this dish has its roots in the French pain perdu, or what we call French toast, but it is surely a matter of time before it wings its way over as a dessert bunny.
Should South Africans be trying to protect the essence of bunny chow or is this dish enduring enough to withstand adaptation by those who choose to do so? While a modernised bunny is not to everyone’s taste, selling food under the name of bunny chow, along with a story of its roots, may help to raise the profile of South African cuisine among those who don’t know their biltong from their braaivleis.
After all, when Indian chefs in the UK put chicken tikka masala on the menu, they may have created a dish not heard of in India, but it became England’s most popular meal and created an appetite for a greater variety of Indian food.
Traditional or experimental, bunny chow has begun to take root on foreign shores where, at markets and restaurants, the smell of Durban spices lures the hungry to taste a piece of SA. Cutlery optional.