The South African braai: A tradition to sink your teeth into

Americans certainly know a thing or two about the act of grilling meat over a wood fire. In the United States, the term “˜barbecue’ refers not just to the social event, but an entire cultural tradition and genre of cuisine whose roots stretch back to colonial times. Yes, ceremonial meat-eating dates further back than you might think. Even George Washington was known to be a fan of the odd smoky steak, writing in his diaries that he “went in to Alexandria to a Barbecue and stayed all Night” in 1769.

However, there is another country whose grilling habits play an equally important role in society: South Africa. The beloved South African braai is an essential mainstay of social life across the country Once you discover the meaty magic of the braai, you’ll never look at the humble barbecue in the same way again.

Someone who understands the significance of the braai to South Africans is Jan Braai (otherwise known as Jan Scannell), the man behind National Braai Day; an initiative to encourage all South Africans to gather together around the braai on the public holiday known as National Heritage Day. We grilled him (sorry) on the historical and cultural relevance of the braai, and chatted about the motivation behind his campaign.

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Jan Braai cooking on the braai. Image courtesy of Jan Braai

Spicing up public holidays

“The idea was to create – or re-invent – the focus of an existing public holiday to become one where we celebrate all that is good and fantastic about our country.”

When is it, and how long have you been leading the way?

“For the past 10 years I’ve been heading up the National Braai Day initiative. It’s an organization that aims to encourage all South Africans to unite around fires, share our heritage and wave our national flag on 24 September every year. This day is a public holiday in South Africa. Our goal is to create a national day of celebration for firstly South Africans, and secondly the whole world to celebrate South Africa on this one day every year.”

How is National Braai Day different from other public holidays?

“Until 10 years ago the focus of all public holidays in South Africa were either political or religious in nature. Whilst important, and emotionally and historically significant, these are not naturally two topics that typically tend to unite a nation.”

What exactly does “˜braai’ mean?

“In a broad sense, braai is the South African word for what in other places is called grilling, barbecue or asado. Most agree that a real braai can only happen when there is a real wooden fire. The word braai is used and recognised in all 11 of the official languages in South Africa and is a word in our dictionaries. It generally refers to searing and cooking food, mainly meat, over the hot coals of a wooden fire. To braai is considered a social occasion more than simply a way of preparing food. Typical dishes are lamb chops, whole butterflied chickens, various cuts of steak, pork ribs, corn, fish (whole or fillets) and boerewors which is a type of sausage made from course ground meat with quite a lot of spices.”

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Freshly cooked food from the braai © Adrian Valenzuela

Vegging out

Although images of sizzling sausages and sumptuous steaks may be causing your taste buds to tingle right now, believe it or not, it’s not all about the meat.

“There are delicious vegetarian options too, and it is not uncommon at all for vegetarians to take part in braais. The most popular are probably corn, and braaibroodjies. The latter is a type of toasted sandwich made with cheese, tomato and onion then buttered on the outside and braai’ed in a hinged grid until the cheese is melted and the bread is golden on the outside. This is an extremely popular side dish with meat eaters too.” Braais the lord, that sounds good.

“The other very popular vegetarian side dish is prepared in a cast iron pot on the fire, then served with a tomato relish. We also bake potatoes, onions and butternut directly in the coals until soft, and giant mushrooms are braai’ed on the grid as you would a braai steak.” 

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Outdoor braai, surrounded by freshly harvested sea salt, near Velddrift on the South African West Coast. Image Jan Braai

What to expect at a braai

Food aside, the braai is very much a lively social occasion, where people who share a love of great food and welcoming company can feel right at home.

“A braai is quite an informal affair, would frequently not involve sitting down at a table to eat, would almost never have a dress code, and usually have quite a flexible guest list. First prize as a visitor is to get yourself invited to a braai at someone’s home. Strike up a conversation with some locals and tell them you want to experience a real South African braai. Chances are whomever you talk to will have a braai engagement or three that coming weekend that they can take you along to.”

“There are public parks where braais typically take place during summer months. In Johannesburg, Zoo Lake Park is a good place to start and if you want to experience Soweto, go to Thokoza Park in that part of town. There are also various (hundreds) of “Chisa Nyama” restaurants in the townships. The words “chisa nyama” literally mean to “burn meat” in some vernacular languages, but they don’t usually burn your meat, they just braai it! If you’re a first-time visitor to South Africa it’s best to visit a Chisa Nyama with some locals or a tour guide, but once you get the flow of the place it’s entirely acceptable to go there on your own.”

Meanwhile in Texas…

Back in the States, Francois Louw is helping to organize the annual Texas Potjie Festival, an event which attracts crowds from throughout Texas and across the US. Alongside the braai, cooking up a potjie is another important South African culinary tradition which involves friends and family gathering around the fire, drinking and socializing well into the night. The potjie – a round cast iron pot used to prepare potjiekos or “small pot food” over an outdoor fire – originated in the Netherlands and was brought to South Africa in the 17th century.

Essentially a fun weekend of camping, the Texas Potjie Festival offers South Africans from Texas and beyond the chance to get together, celebrate their heritage and make new pals -For South Africans living far away from home, it’s an especially meaningful way to celebrate. We chatted to Francois about the way the food’s cooked up, and he revealed the history and culture behind the potjie.

So, the potjie – why does it seem to work so well in the US?

“Saffas long for their heritage and culture and I think this is one of the reasons for the success of the festival. Living in a foreign country, you have no choice but to adapt to local cultures, but this doesn’t stop you from teaching your new home some of your local customs. Potjies have now gained a lot of traction among US people as well.”

We can’t say we blame them, the food sounds fantastic. What exactly is potjiekos?

“Potjiekos is in essence a stew, with a twist. In the traditional fashion you are to build layers in the pot starting with the meat of choice at the bottom, then vegetables such as potatoes, baby marrows, carrots or anything of your choosing. The trick is then to cook at a slow and low temperature to make sure that it does not burn. So there is some technique to this.”

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An authentic South African potjie. Image courtesy of Texas Potjie Festival

What kind of meat would any South African chef worth their salt opt for?

“The most traditional meats are probably lamb neck, shank or oxtail which are known to be a little on the tough side, hence the perfect cooking method of low heat for a long period. This gives the meat a good amount of time to become tender and the fact that it is a cast iron pot gives the potjiekos its distinct flavours. This way of preparing food is something that has been part of our culture dating back to the Voortrekker days. I would say it’s something similar to the chuckwagon tradition here in Texas.”

Alongside potjiekos, other tasty South African food customs are gaining popularity in the United States, probably due to the two countries’ shared love of meat and similarities in cooking methods, such as grilling and barbecue or braaiing. Inevitably, some traditions have overlapped or been adapted, while others have remained true to their roots – something those with an eye for business have leapt on. Francois himself has a sideline in potjie pots which he sells online in the USA. So, which other foods are in vogue at the moment?

“Biltong is obviously another big thing,” says Francois. “A lot of us are making it ourselves, but there are now a few saffas who’ve started to make a business of this and sell biltong online or in stores. In some places, local butchers are making boerewors now for people, but again there are still a lot of us that do it ourselves.”

And when will you find the ultimate fusion of South African flavors and American traditions? The fourth of July, of course.

“For holidays such as July 4th, it’s normally a get together and braai day. This obviously includes things like boerewors, but we have adapted and expanded US traditions a little bit to include things like smoking brisket or pulled pork. Something that also remains very popular is a spit braai, which is traditionally a lamb or a pig.”

Nyama Spitbraai: home of fuss-free flavour

Talking of spit braais, a catering company in South Africa has grown from a small backyard business in 2006 to an organization that coordinates events for thousands of people at a time. Nyama Spitbraai is owned by Francois Wessels, who set up the South African branch after two acquaintances started doing spit braai catering in London after finishing their studies. Starting with two spit braai machines with two chefs braaiing about six lambs per week, the business now has 30 machines and a workforce of about 60, and braais around 100 lambs each week – feeding about 2,000 flavor-loving folksin the process.

We quizzed Francois on exactly how these work, what the average Nyama Spitbraai parties are like and the most popular or unusual dishes in their repertoire.

Can you describe the power of the spit braai?

“A spit braai usually involves cooking a whole lamb/hog over open fire or an enclosed machine with gas. The open fire cooking method is the true way to do a spit braai but takes about eight hours to cook so this does not make business sense if you cook the amount of meat we do. We have however perfected the stainless steel gas spit braai and some say the taste is better than over a fire. Our machines can cook a whole 25kg (55 lbs) lamb in about three hours. Our newest edition is our Ox braai machine that can cook a whole 200kg (440 lbs) ox in six hours and feed up to 1,000 people.”

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Nyama Spitbraai’s ox braai. Image courtesy of Nyama Spitbraai.

 Which foods do people most want to get their hands on?

“Our most sought after item is the lamb spit braai; lots of clients will often order just lamb, freshly baked bread rolls and then see how many lamb burgers they can eat. I would say a close second for most popular item is a boerewors roll with some tomato and onion sauce.”

What else goes down at one of your braais?

“A normal braai scene on a nice summer’s day will be friends and family having drinks that we supply, with a nice fire going next to a Nyama lamb on the spit. By sunset the DJ will start pumping some local Afrikaans music – my brother Robbie Wessels is a local singer and actor so his music goes well with a braai. We can even set up a photo booth to capture the day’s event and keep the kids busy.”

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South African boerewors. Image courtesy of Jan Braai

DIY braai

 To re-create your own braai dish at home, have a go at making boerewors based on a secret Wessels family recipe.

“My father makes our own Nyama boerewors (beef sausages) that we serve with a sweet chilli dip as a welcome snack and it’s very popular,” says Francois. “Here’s his recipe for 2 lb of sausages.”

  • 1 lb 65 oz lean beef cubes
  • 0.5 lb fatty pork cubes
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 ½ tbsps. coriander
  • 1 ½ tbsps. fine cloves
  • 1/2 cup wonder pepper
  • 1/2 cup sea salt
  • 1 ½ tbsps. nutmeg

Mix the spice with the meat and let it rest for about 3 hours. Get some sausage casings (pork or beef intestines) from your local butcher. Here you will need a sausage maker to mince the meat and spice mix together while at the same time stuffing the casing to make the sausage. After rolling your 2 lb of meat it’s ready to cook, best over an open fire.

A food blogger’s Johannesburg

So we’ve revealed the tasty history and culture of the South African braai, but how can you narrow down the best places to eat out, especially in a city as frenetic and culturally diverse as Johannesburg? We turned to Thando Moleketi who launched Jozi Foodie Fix back in 2010. Over the past five years the site has evolved from restaurant reviews only to include recipes and travel advice.We asked Thando what dishes to look out for and where she would send visitors in search of authentic South African flavors – whether braai or something entirely different. Thando quickly replied…

“Pap (maize meal) is a staple in South Africa that crosses cultures. It’s served as a soft porridge in the morning with butter and honey or sour milk and sugar. For lunch and dinner – with a texture similar to stiff polenta – it’s served with a tomato and onion gravy or a hearty stew. The Afrikaners serve it as pap tert (tart) with layers of pap, cheese, onion and tomato baked until firm.”

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Pap two ways: (Left – Image by Go2Africa) Traditional meal consisting of meat stew, butternut, cabbage or other greens, ‘umgqusho’ (samp and beans), and ‘pap’. (Right = Image by Craig Fraser) Phutu, type of pap usually enjoyed with tomoato-based relish.

Amazing. Where can we get some?

“In terms of the food scene, Johannesburg is a melting pot but many visitors don’t experience it because they remain confined in the business hubs such as Sandton and Rosebank.

“It’s dominated by Italian, Portuguese and Greek cuisine with a strong all-day eatery culture. But if you step out of the business hub comfort zones, you can experience Cameroonian fare in Yeoville, Ethiopian in Maboneng district, Indian in Fordsburg, Cape Malay style cuisine in Emmarentia and Chisa Nyama across the city.”

“Try Market on Main in the Maboneng district on Sundays for an introduction into the city from a local’s perspective. It offers a variety of cuisines; Greek, Asian, African and Mexican, but also an experience of an alternative side to the city, similar to Shoreditch in London. Take a walk through the Maboneng Precinct and grab a coffee at Origin or The March Hare in the MOAD museum.

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Maboneng Precinct: Top – Image by Propertuity, Left – Image by Propertuity, Right – Image by Rafiq Sarlie

“Martinus Ferreira’s DW 11-13 in Dunkeld offers fine dining and an enthusiastic knowledgeable wine recommendation by their sommelier Patson Mathonshi.

“Peri Peri chicken can be found at Radium Beer Hall in Orange Grove. It’s a landmark and one of the oldest pubs in the city, serving Portuguese plates along with local craft beer and Guinness on tap.

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Interior of Father Coffee © Nicholas Christowitz

Tasha’s is a Johannesburg favourite for all day eating and great salads. Head to Father Coffee in Braamfontein for hipster watching and a cortado.

“Finally, if you’re in Cape Town, then Bertus Basson’s Overture and Bertus Basson at Spice Route are must-visits for modern South African cuisine. We are still trying to convince him to bring his brand of eatery to Jozi.”

Feeling a bit peckish? Hop on a flight to Johannesburg from London Heathrow today.

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Images courtesy of Overture © Claire Gunn

About Virgin Atlantic USA

We are the Virgin Atlantic digital team in the USA, bringing you stories and views on our favourite destinations around the globe. Our aim is to make you feel like a local, by immersing you in stories on culture, the arts and of course… cuisine.
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