This is a story about an afternoon in Durban, South Africa where everything seemed to go wrong, but somehow ended up right. It’s also everything you ever wanted to know about bunny chow but were afraid to ask.
As our chow-master drizzled the final layer spoonful of gram dal atop an already generous mountain, each of our senses aligned themselves in appreciation of something approaching culinary perfection.
The aroma of fresh spices, the tinkling of ladles, the din of restoration, the scene of satisfaction, and the heaviness of kitchen air that lands just so on the surface of the skin. This is masala, literally a mix.
Pent up hunger and a longer journey than expected conspired to place us at the precipice of something so good we’d bet our lives on it.
But how did we deliver ourselves to something so satisfying after so many wrong turns?
Timely Trains and Bustling Markets That Weren’t
Public transport and markets: two contexts we often use to orient ourselves, to interact with and appreciate ordinary people, and to find something about a place that the brochures surely missed. So when we eyed the Durban city map and realized that we could take Metrorail, the public train, to get from Moses Mahbida Stadium to Victoria Street Market, we figured: perfect combination.
But it was Sunday, sleepy. The train station was dusty and desolate, ticket offices were closed. After clearing the automated gates, we were just late for a departing train. We found ourselves the only ones on the platform, save the cleaning lady. We asked her about the train.
“It comes,” she reassured us.
A few minutes later another hopeful passenger emerged: “The train comes.”
Then, a security guard arrived: “It comes.”
The train never came.
Victoria Street Market, In Search of Lunch
Should you find yourself in Durban and possess an even faint interest in food and spice markets, Victoria Street Market is supposed to be the place. Images of heaping piles of brightly colored Indian spices danced in our heads. Dreams of cheap, delicious food stalls wafting with curries, too.
The reality? By the time we arrived, closing time for all, except an occasional souvenir store. A few hours late, we found ourselves defeated. Starving, too.
On our way out, we passed a convenience store whose entrance featured a few square metal tins filled with spices. I smiled at the Indian man presiding over his small empire as I passed.
A few meters on, I turned around. An instinct told me he held the keys to changing the course of our day. I gave into what felt like a stereotype: “He’s Indian. He’s selling spices. He must know where to find good Indian food in the area.”
“Could you recommend a place to eat nearby? Where do you eat lunch?” I asked.
“Do you like Indian food?” he shot back, excited.
I couldn’t nod energetically enough.
“It’s a simple place, vegetarian food. Very good, where I go for lunch. And it should still be open. It’s called Little Gujarat. I have lunch there often.”
A few minutes and several wrong turns later, we arrived. The aroma of popped Indian spice wafted into the street.
This was it.
Inside, simple tables and chairs took up one side, as the kitchen counter and dozens of cafeteria vats loaded with curries and masalas – from greens to beans – took up the other. Two Indian women moved quickly, customers bustled, too. Homemade menus from a family printer listing options and specials — from rotis to dosai — adorned the walls. Prices? Sub $2.00. The feel: family and restorative, cafeteria yet caring.
This was our kind of place.
At this point, you might be asking: Indian food in South Africa? And what the heck is bunny chow?
Gandhi, Durban Indians and Bunny Chow
Durban, South Africa’s third largest city, also happens to be the biggest “Indian” city outside of India.
Why is this?
In the late 19th century, the British brought thousands of indentured servants from India to work the sugar cane plantations of KwaZulu-Natal and to build the Trans-Natal Railway. A wave of immigration followed as traders sought business opportunities and a better life. Mahatma Gandhi even arrived in Durban in 1893 as a young lawyer and spent a surprising 20 years in South Africa. Today, Indian-South Africans make up about 30% of Durban’s population.
But what of this bunny chow you refer to?
Bunny chow is essentially a hollowed out piece of plain, white sandwich bread stuffed with curry (or masala, if you like). There are many legends as to how the dish came to be, but the one we heard most often from Durbanites goes something like this:
Mr. Bunny, an indentured servant working the sugar cane plantations, was challenged by how to bring his lunch with him into the fields. Curry can be unwieldy, messy, overwhelming. To mitigate all these, Mr. Bunny’s clever wife nipped it all the bud by burying curry into a loaf of bread so that his lunch was self-contained and field-ready to eat.
Today, bunny chow is a legend in Durban.
The Ultimate 5-Layer Bunny Chow
Back at Little Gujurat, we were overwhelmed by choice. “Which curry do you want?” the woman behind the counter asked.
This was a critical moment. We almost choked. Instead, Dan asked her, “Which are your favorites?”
A bizarre question judging by her initial reaction – a sort of “Who are these crazy folks who can’t make a simple decision?” She quickly eased into a smile, pointing to the curry vats below.
Then, you could see a click in their eyes. They both broke in the same direction. “Can we have a bit of each? Is that OK?” Dan asked hopefully.
She nodded and put her expertise to work. Each of the five layers were imprecise yet somehow perfect: sugar bean curry, moong dal, gram dal, broad bean curry, and mixed veg curry. This was a culinary tour de force.
Would it all work together?
It certainly smelled outstanding. Dan began to pant. I think I saw tears.
The man of the house came out from the back and witnessed our excitement. (He smiled. There’s nothing like the beauty of subtle, restrained pride.) As we photographed our tower of bunny chow from every angle, he added a finishing touch: a little bread “hat” and a topper of dal gravy for dramatic effect.
Painfully beautiful at $1.50.
We’re embarrassed to say that we didn’t stop with bunny chow. We ordered a bowl of pumpkin curry, dal and two fresh rotis. Then I insisted on a plate of pani puri, the Indian chaat food combination of sweet (tamarind sauce) with savoury (spicy cilantro, chili and black salt sauce) I adore.
Although the pani puri and roti and masalas were all good, the five-layer bunny chow was something transcendent. It stole the show and qualified as the best Indian food we’d eaten in years, at least as far back as our last visit to the subcontinent in 2008.
Human Connection, Ultimate Beauty
As we waddled up to the counter in our fullness to settle our bill, the owner asked us what we were doing in Durban. We explained, and he decided it was his duty to show where and how to truly enjoy his city.
He disappeared for a moment, and proceeded to rifle through every piece of paper in his desk drawers and cabinet. We waited, unaware of what was going on. Finally, his wife pulled a paper from her purse and the man’s smile grew big.
The magic paper: a discount coupon for the aquarium. He went over everything on the paper, from what we would see there to how much the coupon saved us. The likelihood that we would have time to actually use the coupon was slim to none, but at the foot of kindness, you graciously accept what’s given you. Good will, whatever the circumstances, ought to be preserved.
We took it, thanked him and his family profusely, and paid. The grand total for our Indian feast gorge? Roughly $5.00.
Even though things don’t always work out as we’ve planned, they do work out somehow as they were meant to be, and even in our favor.
These are the times that you want to throw your arms around the world.
We walked out. Then walked back in, asked to take a photo – if only to remember the moment, because the moment itself was enough to carry us away.
Practical Details for Little Gujarat Vegetarian Restaurant:
Address: 107 Prince Edward Street (or 106 Dr. Goonam Street), just a few blocks from Victoria Street Market.