Summer is here, the sun is shining, and South Africans are rushing outdoors. Braaing is probably the first activity that comes to mind. A braai is a South African barbecue and we are passionate about it. Everyone does it and it is the thing that binds all citizens. We even have a special unofficial holiday devoted to it – 24 September – although some would say that every day is a braai day because it is definitely one of South Africa’s favourite pastimes.
Yes, I hear you saying all countries enjoy barbecues – well, not all barbecues are created equal. Braais are unique. You will never see a small pink sausage on a braai, and you will never be given hamburger patties either. No way, at a braai you can expect lots of red meat. The general trend is to bring your own (BYO) meat and alcohol, unless specified otherwise. Some may find this a strange custom but it allows you to bring any hangers-on, thereby adding to the fun, without the hosts finding they have under-catered.
South Africans take their braais so seriously, and do it so often, that most homes have a special and extremely well-appointed braai area, complete with shelving for utensils, wood and other paraphernalia, a covered ‘lapa’ (thatched roofing), comfy chairs, a bar or fridge and well-placed lighting. It does make for convenience and adds to the experience of good entertainment.
A very important aspect of any braai is the ritual. Not to be taken lightly, the ritual is what makes it all come together perfectly. There is protocol involved here, for example, guests should not interfere with the host’s fire making, coal production or cooking methods, and suggestions are done at your own risk. Unlike a dinner party where everyone is seated in an orderly manner around a table, at a braai the men stand around the fire arguing about the correct way to light it, keep it going, and then cook the meat – debates have been known to become heated over whether chops should be turned several times or just once.
Other manly topics are the latest rugby score, the dismal performance of the local soccer team, or whether the cricketing team should be replaced. They seldom clinch business deals or discuss the stock exchange but this doesn’t mean they are not deal-makers or own shares, it’s just that these are not suitable braai topics. The hot new neighbour who sunbathes topless will definitely get a mention and none of the women at the braai will care because they are not listening to this conversation.
The women are in the kitchen preparing salads, buttering rolls and wrapping garlic bread in foil. They will discuss how irritating their husbands are when they get worked up about team coaches. (In South African sports, especially soccer, coaches get more attention than the team and the teams get more coaches than goals). Despite all this irritation, the women make no attempt to join the men and change the topic – this exercise is futile, generations have tried and failed.
At a given moment the host will give his wife the signal that the meat is to be brought out to be cooked. As a newcomer you may not see this signal, it is barely noticeable and very often a secret between couples. The special large metal braai dish endemic to South Africa is ready for this moment – filled to the brim, nay, overflowing with various meats, because everyone brings enough for 8 people – cold braaied meat is lekker (local word for very nice).
Someone will invariably be cursed for having brought chicken which takes too long to cook and isn’t really considered manly enough; and many a host has refused to re-invite a guest who has brought pork sausages.
So, what can you expect to eat? Meat, red, and lots of it…mainly steak and chops, also spare ribs and no braai is complete without boerewors (farmer’s sausage). Wors, as it is commonly known, is also the subject of much debate. No self-respecting South African buys just any old brand – there are as many brands as there are farmers so newcomers to the local braai scene should get advice when buying wors – this is easy, ask fellow shoppers in the supermarket, you can always blame the bad advice if anything goes wrong.
Salads are mandatory at a braai and South Africans have their favourites. Top of the list is potato salad. Despite South Africans not using homemade mayonnaise, most potato salads are very good.
A word of warning: don’t be distracted by the salads or other side dishes – a braai is all about the meat and it is rare, pardon the pun, to attend a braai where the meat does not turn out to be sublime: succulent, tender, flavoursome and just plain yummy delicious. All that debate over firelighting and cooking methods is based on something solid: South African braais are the best in the world and if you’ve never experienced one, what are you waiting for?
Many thanks to BraaiBoy for the top and last photos.