As the country searches for a national cuisine, the braai stands out as its strongest tradition
Glasses of Meerlust Rubicon in hand, Hannes Myburgh's friends drift out onto the vine-trellised veranda that overlooks his wine estate's flower and herb garden; the Helderberg Mountains tower in the distance. Myburgh, whose family has owned Meerlust for seven generations, turns the steak over the coals and throws a bit of beer onto the grill (a time-honored trick for bringing out flavor) as his guests move to their places at the outdoor table to enjoy a lunchtime braai (pronounced BRY)--Afrikaans for barbecue.
Meerlust, the setting for this most traditional of South African meals, is one of the premier wineries of Stellenbosch, the home of the Western Cape's finest reds. Myburghs have owned Meerlust since 1756, and several of the wines that Hannes Myburgh, who trained at Château Lafite, and his head winemaker, Giorgio Dalla Cia, have brought out are among South Africa's current best: the Bordeaux-style Meerlust Rubicon, a superb Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot-Cabernet Franc blend; an attention-grabbing Chardonnay; and a barrel-matured and bottle-aged Merlot. They also produce South Africa's first two estate grappas, a Merlot-Cabernet blend and a Pinot-Chardonnay blend.
The braai is something even more firmly established than Meerlust itself. Braais originated in the late 17th century as spit-roasts at "fairs," or celebrations, held by the Cape's Dutch governor; they became entrenched largely because Voortrekkers (the Dutch and Huguenot settlers who were then pressing into the heart of the country) had no choice but to cook over open fires. With time, the image of the braai became etched on the minds of South Africans. In the Seventies and Eighties, the advertising jingle "Braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet" more or less defined the Afrikaner lifestyle. Today this style of cooking is no longer uniquely Dutch-African: all South Africans love it.
Cooks in different regions of the country have different ways of approaching braais. The people of the Southern Cape coast are masters of fish braais. Farther north, the inhabitants of the Karoo--the central, desert-like portion of South Africa--favor the mutton and lamb that are so abundant there. In the northeastern Free State (historically an Afrikaner area), spit-roasted whole-lamb braais are popular. In KwaZulu Natal, on the east coast, cooks wrap and grill barracuda and yellowtail in banana leaves and serve traditional Zulu accompaniments such as green mealie (corn) bread and fritters.
Meerlust is in the province of Western Cape, and the winery's braai reflects the local Cape Malay traditions. Cape Malay cuisine got its start toward the end of the 17th century, when the Dutch settlers imported Malay (Indonesian) slaves to work as carpenters, tailors, fishermen and cooks. The Malays brought with them their Eastern spices (cardamom, ginger, garlic and so on), and dishes with clever spicing--chutneys, curries, sosaties (kebabs)--are among their most enduring culinary legacies.
The Dutch colonists themselves contributed the combination of dried fruits and spices for such preparations as the Dried Apricot and Lamb Sosaties that Hannes Myburgh serves his guests. French Huguenots introduced the use of marinades and herbs for grilled meats and fish. Increasing numbers of settlers from England, Germany and Scandinavia and new slaves from Madagascar, Indonesia and southern India brought other influences.
But these influences didn't extend beyond the braai: for most of South Africa's history, its cooking remained as segregated as its politics. It's hard to point to a single national cuisine because South Africa has remained a country of people who, unswayed by their neighbors, eat what their grandparents ate. Now a new culinary consciousness is starting to take root, urged along by a plenitude of fresh fruits and vegetables available in varieties that were unheard-of just a decade ago. And as South Africa's home cooks become more open to new ideas, its chefs are taking the first steps toward forging a genuine South African style.
Still, according to Annette Kesler, one of the country's most esteemed food editors and writers, "Nothing is unified yet--there are just a few guys who are very aware of the fact that we should be doing something. We're where America was in the Sixties and Seventies, when people like Julia Child and Alice Waters were starting to pull things together." And until South African cooking reaches the next stage of its evolution, the pleasures of the braai will go a long way toward sustaining the notion of a national cuisine.
Adèle Sulcas is the editor of the weekend lifestyle supplement of the Cape Times, Cape Town's morning daily paper.
Jenna Holst is the author of the forthcoming Stews (Macmillan).