Did we hear you say braai? Probably, because braaiing is up there at the top of the ‘Fun Things To Do’ list of all South Africans and with Heritage Day coming up soon, the braai planning is in full swing.
Show us a fire and we’re there. Be it meat over the coals or a three-legged pot nestled in them, braais – also called shisa nyama – make South Africans happy. For those not familiar with the word ’braai’, it’s what the rest of the world call a barbecue and it’s pretty much a South African staple.
The Origin of the Braai
It’s not new, but has been going since, well, the beginning of man, which incidentally also happened in Africa. Back then, though, it was a bit tougher. Imagine that first braai, as the cave man went out hunting with his club, finally returning with supper slung over his Neanderthal shoulder. Of course, while he was out, his woman – tired of gnawing on raw meat – would’ve worked out how to make fire by rubbing two sticks together. That first braai must’ve been something to behold.*
*Note: this story may or may not be historically accurate. Fire may also have been created for other uses, such as heat. We like our braai-centric version of the story.
On the 24th of September, it’s Heritage Day in South Africa. This public holiday, instituted in 1995 on what was formerly known as Shaka’s Day in memory of the legendary Zulu king, is a day to celebrate the diverse cultures and traditions that make up South Africa’s population.
Former president, the late Nelson Mandela, addressed the country on that first Heritage Day in 1995, saying:
"When our first democratically-elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation.”
And what better way to celebrate, than to invite some friends over, light a fire, and cook some food? After all, it’s a common thread that runs through South Africans of all colours and creeds.
Jan Braai – otherwise known as Jan Scanell – called upon all South Africans to celebrate their shared culture by braaiing together on Heritage Day, coining the colloquial nickname of the holiday … Braai Day. In 2008, another favourite South African of ours, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu became the patron for Braai Day:
How To Make A Braai
This is the million dollar question and if you ask six different people, you’ll get eight different answers. Wood? Gas? Charcoal? Each person has their own method for creating the ultimate braai.
Here at ABS, we’re purists. We like wood and we like standing around it for hours as it slowly burns down to the perfect wood vs. coals vs. ash consistency to braai our food – again, slowly, to perfection. This is the time to sit back and chew the fat (metaphorically) with friends and family. But which wood? Each different wood gives different flavours to the food and burns at different rates.
Some wood points:
- Harder wood burns slower
- Pine and pine cones are good for starting a braai (and smell delicious), but burn quickly
- Preferably use alien wood – we care about protecting our indigenous forests
- Wet wood makes smoke. Smoke follows people and makes them cross
What To Cook
South Africans will put just about anything on a braai. Traditionally, it’s meat, the redder the better – sausage, steak, chops, sosaties, and even chicken, which in some more meat-eating areas is considered a vegetable.
At the coast, fresh seafood is de rigeur, and, for those non-meat eaters, there are plenty of vegetable dishes that are lip-smacking cooked over the coals, or in them.
One such thing is butternut, a South African favourite: chop it in half, take out the pips, stuff it with whatever delights your taste buds, wrap it in foil and nestle it in amongst the burning embers. Pure deliciousness. Even asparagus is good on a braai.
Another veggie delight is mielies – what others call corn on the cob – cooked on the grid to perfection. Go anywhere in SA and you’ll find street vendors braaiing and selling this.
These get their own section. Basically, they’re toasted sandwiches done on the braai, giving them a smoky taste that will make you crave more the minute you’ve finished the first one. Family recipes are handed down from generation to generation, the basic being white bread, cheese and tomato, with a whole load of permutations as to what’s added. Think onion, chilli, and another South African favourite, Spur Secret Sauce, and more.
Another part of a true braai that deserves its own section is maize meal, which goes by a plethora of names in Africa. So much so that we’ve written an entire blog about it. Served as a side dish, it’s stiff and eaten with delicious sauces, most often a tomato-based one called chakalaka.
How To Braai
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Competitions & Festivals
As with anything that a country loves, there are innumerable braai-centric competitions and festivals throughout the country. Here, braai masters compete for the best boerewors, braai meal, braai side dish … you name it, it’s there.
Ekasi Braai Festival, Soweto
This annual event, held on Heritage ‘Braai’ Day at Esibayeni Butchery and Shisanyama in Soweto offers up DJs, beer, braai and a kid’s area. It’s a family affair and all are welcomed.
Calvinia, in the aridly beautiful Northern Cape Karoo, is sheep country. Each year – usually on the last weekend in August – people flock into town to celebrate everything lamb. There are braais and more braais, with plenty of entertainment added on the side.
Maletsunyane Braai Festival
This one’s at our neighbours, the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. It’s hard to beat the iew of the annual Maletsunyane Braai Festival. Hundreds of people set up camps – and braais – on a flat hilltop overlooking the Maletsunyane Falls. It’s pretty spectacular!
The Ultimate Braai Master
We’ve even got a reality show where teams compete to make the best braai. It’s called Ultimate Braai Master, of course, and the sixth season is on its way. Think Top Chef meets Braai. Watch it to learn some tips and tricks. This is the gourmet version of braaiing.
Where To Braai
Basically, anywhere except where open fires are not allowed, or where lighting a fire may cause a wild fire, especially in drought areas where the bush is basically just one huge spread of kindling.
South Africans braai in their backyards, outside the grocery store, at picnic spots, on the beach, at the in-laws … you get what we mean by ‘pretty much everywhere’. There are, however, some superstellar spots that include spectacular views. These are some of our favourites:
There are innumerable gorgeous places to braai in and around Cape Town. Two of our favourite beach-side spots are Buffels Bay and Bordjiesdrif in the Cape Point Nature Reserve. Designated braai areas overlooking this unspoilt coastline – and the added bonus of a tidal pool to cool down in – make these prime braaiing spots. Keep an eye out for the baboons, though … they’re equally keen on some braaied titbits.
Closer to town, Maiden’s Cove, nestled between Glen Beach and Clifton, is the perfect place for a sunset braai.
Towering moutains always make a good backdrop for a braai and the Drakensberg offers those in stacks. Throughout the ‘Berg, there are designated braai spots, so pack the cooler bag and get out there.
Here, too, there are loads of great places to braai, many with views over rivers and dams where you can watch the animals while you enjoy the fire, the food and the company. Both in camps and throughout the park, there are designated picnic spots.
For a truly wild experience, some safaris include a bush braai – in the middle of the game park! Ask one of our ABS consultants to book you one which includes this. You won’t be disappointed.
If you’re not that into making fire, fear not, there are numerous restaurants that specialise in braaiing.
Mzoli’s, Gugulethu, Cape Town
Experience the true camaraderie of a braai. Choose your meat and they’ll cook it for you while you enjoy the friendly vibe of this legendary Cape Town establishment. Named after owner, Mzoli Ngcawuzele, Mzoli’s has been open since 2003.
Busy Corner Imbizo Shisanyama, Johannesburg
Out in Midrand between Joburg and Pretoria, you can experience the tastes of a real braai at Busy Corner Imbizo Shisanyama. Started in 1997 by Rita Zwane, it has gone from strength to strength, priding itself in the history of Africa with inspiration from the South African identity and traditions.
Chaf Pozi, Soweto
Set at the feet of the iconic Orlando Towers (where you can do a range of crazy adventure sports like bungee jumping) lies the vibey Chaf Pozi. Think great local food, cold beers, township music and fabulous company – perfect for after some adrenaline-boosting adventures.
Classique Braai Lounge, Hillcrest
New kid on the block, Classique Braai Lounge – in Hillcrest, between Durban and Pietermaritzburg – was opened by Langa Sithole and Sandile Dlamini in 2016 and has fast become a favourite with both locals and tourists.
“It’s like home-made, but better,” Langa explains. “We want the flavours to appeal to a broad audience, while reminding people of the food their mothers and grandmothers used to make.”
The Cherry On The Top
No meal is complete without dessert and braais are no exception. Since those caveman days (this, too, may not be historically accurate), the best possible braai pudding is marshmallows, cooked on a stick over the glowing coals until they’re beautifully browned on the outside and gooey on the inside.