Bunny Chow Serendipity

Ultimate Bunny Chow! 5-layer vegetarian via Little Gujarat resto in Durban #SouthAfrica #awesomesauce
The Ultimate Bunny Chow in Durban

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.

Sold.

A few minutes and several wrong turns later, we arrived. The aroma of popped Indian spice wafted into the street.

This was it.

Little Gujarat Restaurant - Durban, South Africa
Little Gujarat Restaurant – Durban, South Africa

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.

Win.

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.

Pani Puri at Little Gujarat - Durban, South Africa
Pani Puri at Little Gujarat – Durban

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.

People behind Little Gujarat Restaurant - Durban, South Africa
The friendly folks behind Little Gujarat Restaurant in Durban.

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.

Disclosure: This campaign is brought to you by the South Africa Tourism Board and is supported and managed by iambassador. As always, the opinions expressed here — including our love for this bunny chow — are entirely our own.

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Comments

  1. says

    @Thomas: Thanks, glad you enjoyed it! If you loved Bunny Chow in Cape Town you’ll be over the moon when you try it in Durban where it was invented. Such a simple concept, but so delicious!

  2. says

    Wow never heard of Bunny Chow but now I want it. Had no idea there was such a big Indian presence in Durban, totally a bonus in my book!

  3. says

    @Liz: Just another side of South Africa’s surprising diversity. For meat eaters, there’s plenty of great non-veg bunny chow, too. We had a terrific chicken curry bunny chow in Durban as well (one of the Sunrise Chip and Ranch, Johnny’s Rotis outposts, I believe).

  4. says

    Hi Dan and Audrey.
    What a lovely story. Little Gujarat is a Durban legend! So want a yummy 5 layer bunny after reading this! Really enjoy reading your stories of South Africa. Keep them coming =)
    Meruschka

  5. says

    @Merushka: And to think that we found this “legend” by chance – we were fortunate to run into the right guy to steer us there! When doing research I noticed that there was a Little Gujarat at #43 and one at #107 (where we ate). The same family, I assume?

    Don’t worry, we have lots more stories on South Africa coming :)

  6. says

    Durban is known for making the best bunny chows ever.
    In Cape Town we have a select few places that are owned by proper Durban Indians and their food is amazing!

  7. says

    @Michael W: That’s the idea. Question is: Was it anything like you expected?

    @Julio: Agreed. Curry is a good dipping agent.

    @Blair: Cape Town bunny chow? Care to drop a few names here?

  8. says

    Bunny Chow sounds awesome. It reminds me of all the different stews that people put in bread bowls. I’m sure it was wonderful and having nice people makes everything better. I’m going to have to find that food if we make it to Africa some day.

  9. says

    @Kristin: Each time I look at this photo I salivate as well! The food was wonderful, but the people made it all the better of an experience.

    @Clayton: So true. Someone once described bunny chow as San Francisco clam chowder in a bread bowl, but with curry instead. It was a great surprise to find such a strong Indian food influence in South Africa.

  10. says

    I’ve always thought South Africa is an “expensive” destination, but from your post, it seems very affordable. I’m pleasantly surprised!

  11. says

    @Pauline: We found that the value of food and wine in South Africa was quite high. Not all meals were as cheap as this, but even in “nice” restaurants we usually paid under $10 for a main dish. Rental cars can also be inexpensive – our one day rental cost about $25/day. Accommodation might be a bit more expensive, but it’s still cheaper than Europe.

  12. says

    Great story! That’s what I love about travel: the spontaneous and unexpected discoveries, which are often the best part of a trip.

  13. says

    Panipuri and bunny chow look really yummy. Isn’t great to be asked “What type of curry you want”? :) I absolutely love curry. Durban here we come, it’s on the bucket list. Thanks so much for this.

  14. says

    Hey Audrey, Dan,

    This took us back a couple of years when we did the most amazing road-trip from Jo’Burg to Capetown via Durban. In Durban we had a bunny-chow for every damn meal – it’s like an institution there, isn’t it? While the one served in Durban is usually “filled” with curry as your beautiful pictures show, we had a drier variant in Soweto, Jo’Burg while on a township tour. Obviously the two can’t be compared because they have different meats and flavours, but the “Kota” was definitely easier to gobble down :)

    http://www.bruisedpassports.com/wheres/5-reasons-you-must-go-for-a-township-tour-in-south-africa

    Love the video clip of Dan – that sums up my reaction to such exciting food :)

    Cheers

  15. Renan Ferrer says

    Just seeing these photos my appetite whetted! What is the name of the food from the first picture?
    Thanks for sharing with us!
    Cheers
    Renan Ferrer

  16. says

    Thank you for this post. I actually shed a tear reading it if you can believe that! It made me incredibly nostalgic for my hometown, for places like Little Gujarat, and of course, for Bunny Chow. I’m glad you had such a positive experience.

  17. says

    @Vid: Bunny chow is certainly a Durban institution. We didn’t have it for every meal when we were there, but we could have! Interesting to hear about the variations of the dish across the country. Now I’m getting hungry :)

    @Renan: The dish in the photograph is called Bunny Chow. If you read on in the article, you’ll find a full description of it and the history of how it came to be.

    @Adrian: So glad we brought back good memories from your hometown and for experiences like eating Bunny Chow. We really liked the feel of Durban – would like to return for more time next visit.

  18. says

    Hello Audrey! Thanks for the feedback. I’m sorry. I jumped to the end of the post to know the recipe and did not look the description above. Now yes I did. ;)

  19. Tamara OReilly says

    Aw Audrey! You’ve made me homesick!! Nothing, and I mean nothing I have eaten in Europe beats the satisfaction of a Durban bunny chow. The medley of spices, the fluffy bread and the merriness of eating with your fingers is almost therapeutic. Most important for me though is the social factor. A bunny is almost always shared (or everyone gets their own) but you will probably never find someone eating a bunny by themselves.

  20. says

    @Tamara: Love how you mention the social factor associated with Bunny Chow. That’s something that makes the memories and the taste of the dish so much more memorable as you probably remember the friends/family you were with for all those Bunny Chow experiences. Maybe you should start your own Bunny Chow restaurant in Europe?? :)

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