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In South Africa, Australia and countries in the southern hemisphere, December falls over the hottest part of summer. It’s also the vacation period and the combination of good weather and people on holiday, makes a convincing argument for meals outside. In South Africa, the national tradition of braai (barbecue) has long replaced the Western stuffed turkey and pudding, as a more practical and fun choice for Christmas and festive lunches.
Across the Divide
Wisps of smoke lift off charcoal or wood; a long and patient process is involved in getting the fire at just the right temperature. Modern gas grills are widely used, but those-in-the-know stick to the old fashioned wood fire – an art to be mastered with a smokiness that infuses the meat with flavour. Whether you are in the affluent suburbs or the run-down townships, the tradition of braaing in South Africa cuts across every divide. In fact, visitors to South Africa are encouraged to experience a largely meat-only braai in the townships at one of the butcheries such as Mzoli’s in Gugulethu, or Nomzamo’s Butchery in Langa, where the braais are lit from around 10 am every day.
Where there’s Fire, there’s Braai
As it has always been, where a fire is lit, people congregate, and this is no different with braaing. Overall, there seems to be a gender preference in South Africa, still, with men turning the tongs and women preparing the salads and sides. Naturally, this isn’t a hard a fast rule. The fire provides a convenient spot for conversation with cold beers in hand, and on chilly evenings, everyone gathers closer for warmth. To give you an indication of how popular braaing is, A South African reality television show, Ultimate Braaimasters, has gained such enormous public support and ratings that it is now transmitted to 100 million people, in 280 territories and translated into 22 languages. All over a grilled chop? Well, you better believe it. Lauded Chef Reuben Rifflel of Reuben’s in Franschhoek has released a book, Braai, Reuben on Fire (Quivertree, 2013) that celebrates the braai, by sharing his family anecdotes and his recipes with an elegant twist. He uses both the wood and modern grill to prepare these recipes.
Glam up the Grill
Braai does not have to mean just a simple pack of hamburgers and hotdogs on the grill. Perfecting heat control and experimenting with marinades and sides takes the weekend braai to celebratory status. Duck can be prepared with a fig and sour cherry sauce, lamb with a Dijon mustard, thyme and anchovy sauce, and crayfish (similar to lobster), popular in the Cape, can be given a braai makeover with basil butter and a fresh tomato and cilantro salsa. The standby South African sides of potato salad with boiled eggs and mayonnaise, the ubiquitous three bean salad and grilled corn, can all be traded up for lighter, fresher but filling Mediterranean-style salads made popular by chefs like Yottam Ottolenghi. Braai left-overs can be transformed into sensational sandwiches and salads the next day, and impart a smokiness you just can’t get on the stove or in the oven. Marinate the meat, chill the drinks and fat chunks of watermelon sprinkled with chopped mint and prepare to celebrate summer, the South African way.