Bunny chow is the predominant street food of South Africa. It is ubiquitous in Durban. A cored-out loaf of bread filled with savory gravy, it is intimately tied to the 20th-century history of South Africa and seven decades of emancipatory struggle against white supremacism.
The Bania are a mercantile community in India, a sizable subcaste. The word is also a synecdoche for “Vaishyas,” those who sell, the traditional Indian caste of merchants, tradespeople, and sellers of produce. The Bania are a Vaishya subcaste originally from western India – the modern states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.
The Bania community is known for adhering to a simple and economical lifestyle in spite of its wealth, and for its business skills. The community has a historical reputation for minimizing expenditure, both personal and professional, and maximizing earnings. It is thus imperative that their culinary choices reflect this frugality.
The Bania were also known to be highly adaptive and compromising, other than key aspects of their lifestyle and observation of certain religious tenets, particularly vegetarianism. This enabled them to travel and later spread to all parts of the subcontinent and practice their trade. This survivalist ability, coupled with their uncompromising nature as regards to ethics, of vegetarianism and digestibility, elegantly birthed the dish now known as bunny chow.
The Bania community is known for adhering to a simple and economical lifestyle in spite of its wealth, and for its business skills
Historically, most Bania families were overwhelmingly dependent upon their women for cooking. Overseas, they needed something that required only limited cooking craft. Rotis or chapatis (unleavened flatbreads) were difficult to master due to the complexity of the preparation process. Moreover, South Africa lacked the very basis of West Indian food – legumes. In order to get around this, the Bania devised a bypass in the form of relatively abundant beans and locally available vegetables. They utilized a large bread loaf as an edible utensil to contain the dish. As with an ice-cream cone, it circumvented the requirement of cutlery, and was handy for taking to work as a light meal.
Unlike the Indian chapati, it was soft. It was not initially filled with meat or heavy vegetables, as it could crumble under its weight when carried, and also because the Bania were keenly observant vegetarians. Later, meat-based fillings became popular, as packaging was employed and the ability to sustain the weight of its content wasn’t a problem any longer. The bread would slowly soak up the savory juices and swell, turgid and scrumptious, by lunchtime.
Because the Bania diaspora were fervent workaholics, and needed to travel to various regions for work, something portable and readily assembled was needed. In Bombay, from where most of the diaspora left for South Africa, the hustle-bustle lifestyle appropriated such simple, quick dishes as pav bhaji, vada pao and bhelpuri. Vada pao is in essence a potato fritter or cutlet sandwiched in a half-incised bun.
Moreover, the Bania put importance on having their diet easy on the gastronomy, and have devised umpteen measures to facilitate digestion. Their food is low on conventional carbohydrates, and has a lot of spices to aid the digestive process. Keeping consistent with this lifestyle paradigm, bunny chow is soft, simple, and spice-loaded, a testimony to the characteristic adaptability and realist balance the community struck between tradition and flexibility of acclimatization.
The dominant etymological theory behind the name “bunny” is the Bania community. The word bunny may also have derived from, or at least been inspired by, “buns,” a dietary staple of Mumbai that is used to make two of its principal dishes: pao bhaji and vada pao. However, this hypothesis is not well substantiated.
A dish that was influenced by colonial discrimination later took on a different application. During apartheid, this fast food became a staple of the black community, a convenient takeaway during their toil, which had become increasingly industrialized, segregated and cooperation-oriented, unlike the early days when their work was often unorganized, informal or agrarian in nature. Segregated spaces ranged from workplaces to eateries, and the dish’s handiness had a new purpose beyond portability – utensil-freedom. White eatery owners did not permit blacks to lay a finger on their crockery and cutlery.
In the colonial era, people of color were not permitted to dine in eateries. When urbanization transpired, communities were forced to intermingle, at least superficially. The white restaurateurs provided takeaway food, mostly from a separate counter. Lacking cutlery and crockery, they needed something that could be eaten by hand.
Today, bunny chow is a cosmopolitan dish of the rainbow nation, and is taking gourmet restaurants worldwide by storm. But the frugal origins of this epicurean delight are intimately entwined with subsistence in a discriminatory world, and the multifaceted freedom struggles in South Africa.