Katlego Sebastian Mlambo, a chef who grew up in a township outside Johannesburg and has worked in some of South Africa’s most prestigious kitchens, says it is easy to explain the nation’s near-universal love of braai. Braai means grill in Afrikaans, the Dutch-Malay-Zulu-Xhosa-English mash-up language that has evolved here since 1652, when the first Europeans arrived from the Netherlands.
“We have 11 official languages, and braai is the only word that is recognized in all of them,” he said.
Like many other food-loving South Africans, he says that even though the modern nation encompasses many distinct cultures, braai cuts across ethnicity, race and class.
“At night, everyone here can sit and watch a fire for hours,” Mlambo said; the spectacular weather and landscape don’t hurt. “We call it the African TV.”
Like grill or barbecue in the United States, braai (rhymes with fry) can be a noun, verb or adjective, as in: “Let’s get those rump steaks on the braai” or “tell Sarah to start the braaied mielies” (grilled corn on the cob) or even “I’m braaiing warthog ribs this weekend.”
Braais can be held on beaches and in backyards, for four guests or 40, for any reason or no reason at all. Traditionally held after a hunt or a slaughter, a braai happens these days because a local fishmonger got a shipment of giant prawns from Mozambique, or because the Springboks (the national rugby team, another cross-cultural passion) are playing, or simply because it’s Tuesday.
Whether the main attraction is open-fire leg of lamb with pomegranate-mint pesto at a wine country wedding or lamb necks sizzling over coals in a split oil drum on a township street corner, grilled meat is both a creative passion and a daily staple in South Africa.
“The smell of smoke is in our blood,” said Jean Nel, one of South Africa’s best-known braai cooks, who grew up on a remote sheep farm. “Even if we become city slickers, working in an office, at night we always want to braai.”
The practice even has a holiday: Braai Day, officially called Heritage Day, is observed every Sept. 24.
In 2005, as a campaign to honor the holiday with a braai began, the notion of a still-divided nation unifying around a shared love of grilled meat seemed both feeble and potentially offensive. But the braai has emerged as a tentative symbol of South African unity. In the last decade, meat has become more affordable, supermarkets have expanded, and food television has taken off, with shows like “Ultimate Braai Master” and “Siba’s Table.”
Braai “is one thing that can unite us irrespective of all of the things that are trying to tear us apart,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an anointed patron of National Braai Day, proclaimed at an event that kicked off the movement. Tutu, in apron and tongs, manned the braai, frequently prodding the steaks as grill cooks do everywhere. “The T-bone is the shape of our continent,” he said.
An everyday braai may consist of chicken breasts or toasties, grilled cheese sandwiches. But a “proper braai” is a social ritual from start to finish.
It begins with provisioning a mix of proteins – as a shortcut, food markets here sell “braai packs” by the kilogram – and continues through seasoning the meat and constructing the fire. (This alone can take hours. The time is often passed by drinking beer, the excellent local wine, or a festive mixture of brandy and Coke.) It concludes by pulling the meat from the grill after considerable argument over when it is done.
Appetizers – Mlambo recommends pork sausages – are necessary to stave off guests’ hunger and, he said, “to keep their fingers away from my braai.” Guests must not touch the host’s tongs or test the meat, but are free with advice and opinions.
“Unless you’re a strict vegetarian, if you live here, you learn to appreciate good meat,” said Dani Pick, an owner of the Butcher Shop & Grill a group of refined braai restaurants in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Dubai and five other locations in the Middle East. “Cooking a steak past medium-rare is considered almost a crime.”
Pick is a third-generation butcher: His grandmother Fay was the first woman to hold a butcher’s license in South Africa. Sheep and beef cattle are raised here to have less fat than American meat animals, are almost always dry-aged, and their flavor is more mineral. Pick’s favorite local cut for the braai is the rump steak (from the part that American butchers call round). Rump fans like their steak cut two to three inches thick, with a thick fat cap for juiciness, and well aged for tenderness.
Although women are responsible for the day-to-day cooking across cultures here, men tend to take charge at a braai.
“The women are supposedly in the kitchen making one little salad while the men do all the work,” said Camilla Comins, a chef and the author of “Girls on Fire,” a book about braaiing for women. “But, of course, they are cooking all the side dishes, making sure there are starters, and feeding the children,” who are frequently asleep by the time the braaivleis (grilled meats) are ready.
Comins grew up on a safari camp in the Karoo, a vast arid swath of the interior, and learned to braai from her mother, who cooked almost all the family’s meals over fire. “You have to have the know and the how,” Comins said.
Traditional campfire cooks use metal grates for grilling and potjies, Dutch-style caldrons, for everything else. As the nation’s population has become more urban and suburban, braais have moved from campfires to charcoal kettles (Weber and Big Green Egg are both popular) and recently, to the horror of purists, onto gas grills.
Heritage and braai remain inextricable. In addition to the basic pleasure of any cookout, a braai carries nostalgia for this nation’s past: a preindustrial time when ancestors spent evenings around wood fires under clear South African skies.
Braaiing is more about ritual than recipes, but some of its flavors are particularly South African. Beef and lamb are standard, but many cooks like to underline the local biodiversity with cuts of ostrich, bok (antelope) and wildebeest.
Chicken is popular for everyday meals, but braai purists consider poultry and seafood to be vegetables, or at least intruders. A proper braai must also have at least two meat elements – lamb chops and beef steaks, for example, or lamb kebabs and boerewors (farmer’s sausage), a hefty coil of beef and pork.
Although traditional Dutch food is not exactly fragrant with spices, South African boerewors and braai sout (salt, used as a rub) are often highly seasoned with coriander, cumin, clove cinnamon and ginger.
The love of spices, chutney, curry leaves and other aromatics are the legacy of South Africa’s Cape Malay population, thousands of people who were transported here as slaves from the Dutch colonies in Indonesia in the 17th and 18th centuries. Many worked professionally as cooks, and their sweet chutneys, complex ketchups and grilled skewers are imprinted on the South African palate.
One braai classic, lamb chunks marinated in tangy-sweet jam and perfumed with fresh citrus or curry leaves, is called sosaties – a descendant of the word satay. And the popular element of chile heat, called peri-peri, arrived here with the Portuguese settlers of neighboring Mozambique.
In Zulu, the term for braai is shisa nyama, which roughly translates to “burn meat.” The term has been adopted by speakers of other African languages here.
“Shisa nyama was here a long time before braai,” said Faith Nomonde Sikaya, a chef in Langa, outside Cape Town, where she runs a restaurant in the house her family has lived in since 1948.
That year, new apartheid laws and housing policies took effect all over South Africa. In Cape Town, the city’s long-established racially diverse neighborhoods were demolished, and its residents of color expelled to the townships to make way for all-white communities.
Today, one side of the city’s landmark Table Mountain is carpeted with golden beaches, flowering hills, villas and upscale coffee shops. Ten minutes away, on the far side of the mountain, the dusty Cape Flats stretch inland for miles, covered with unauthorized shanty towns and permanent townships that are home to anywhere from 1 million to well over 2.5 million people.
Most townships have a butchery where customers can buy meat to braai at home, or have it grilled on the spot to eat, spitting hot with fat and crusty with braai sout. In the past, only cheaper cuts like cow hooves, pig trotters and smilies (sheep heads split from top to bottom) were sold in township butcheries, where braais were fueled by broken plywood palettes and other building materials. Today, at Mzoli’s, a butchery in Gugulethu, there are T-bones for sale, along with many kinds of fresh sausage, chops and thin steaks that cook quickly over eight roaring wood fires out back.
At her restaurant, Mzansi, Sikaya makes the traditional dishes served with shisa nyama all over Southern Africa: umxhaxha (corn and squash simmered with salt, sugar and cinnamon), umngqusho (corn, butter beans, onions, potatoes and chiles) and chakalaka, an improbably delicious brew of onion, garlic, ginger, tomato, carrots, sweet peppers, hot chiles, curry powder and canned baked beans.
Nel, renowned for his braais, wrote a best-selling cookbook in 2011. He handed in the manuscript with one stipulation: Its title, “Braai the Beloved Country,” was not negotiable.
“That book is one of the things every South African has in common,” he said, alluding to Alan Paton’s heartbreaking and prophetic 1948 novel, “Cry, the Beloved Country,” which is still a touchstone here.
“There could be no other title,” he said with satisfaction. “My editor nearly fell off her chair.”
Grilled Corn with Chile Butter
1 stick butter, softened
1 fresh hot red chile, such as Fresno, Holland or cherry, seeded and minced
1 teaspoon minced garlic (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Hot sauce to taste
8 to 12 cobs of corn
Lime wedges for serving (optional)
1. Prepare a grill for high-heat cooking. For each corn cob, tear a piece of aluminum foil large enough to wrap it completely.
2. In a bowl, combine the butter, chile, garlic (if using), salt and pepper. Mix well and taste. Adjust the seasonings; add drops of hot sauce if the butter is not spicy enough. Set aside.
3. Shuck the corn. Use your hands to rub butter mixture thoroughly onto each cob, reserving about 1/4 of the mixture for basting. Wrap each buttered cob in aluminum foil.
4. When ready to cook, place cobs on the grill (or, if the fire is low, in the coals) and cook 12 to 15 minutes, turning occasionally, until steamed and cooked through.
5. Unwrap and place on the grill. Use remaining butter to baste the corn as it grills, turning it until lightly charred and cooked through. Serve immediately with lime wedges, if using.
Yield: 4 to 8 servings
Braai-Spiced T-Bone Steaks
4 tablespoons coarse salt
2 tablespoons white or brown sugar (optional)
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon paprika or 2 teaspoons paprika plus 1 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon garlic flakes or powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon dried thyme
4 to 6 T-bone steaks, about 1 1/2 inches thick
1. Make the braai spice: In a grinder or mortar and pestle, grind all the seasonings and herbs until fine.
2. Rub steaks with the braai spice and set aside in refrigerator for 1 to 4 hours. Bring to room temperature before grilling.
3. Heat a grill until screaming hot. Place steaks on the grill and cook, turning every 2 minutes or so, until crusty outside and medium-rare inside, 120 to 125 degrees. Let rest 10 minutes and slice across the grain for serving.
Yield: 4 to 8 servings