Ode to the humble braaibroodjie

Ode to the humble braaibroodjie
Braaibroodjies over the coals. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Like the croque monsieur you eat in the streets and parks of Paris, the braaibroodjie is a treasure to be loved and savoured.

We could translate braaibroodjies as “little grilled sandwiches” but that would be like correcting “voetstoots” to “buyer’s risk”. The latter is correct, but even in South African law, voetstoots is the accepted term, and if you know the term voetstoots, you’re South African, and if you don’t, you’re most likely not.

If you’re South African and have never yet encountered the term braaibroodjie, kindly forward the address and GPS coordinates of the rock you’ve been living under so that we can send someone along to examine you for scientific purposes.

I have a great many South African cookbooks and, surprisingly, there are scant recipes for the beautiful yet humble braaibroodjie in them. There is one bold exception, however. The cleverly named and branded Jan Braai devoted an entire book to the braaibroodjie (well, half of one, the other half was about burgers). And he is one commentator (and an astute and informed one) who makes no bones about what it is.

“Those not yet emancipated by the fact that you don’t need meat at every braai frequently braai meat as a pretext when all they actually want is braaibroodjies,” he writes in Braaibroodjies and Burgers (BookStorm). He adds that there is “only one original recipe for braaibroodjies: they have chutney (Mrs H.S. Ball’s please), onion, tomato, cheese, salt and pepper as filling and they are buttered on the outsides. You do not omit any of these ingredients, nor do you enter into a discussion with an uneducated person who intends to butter them on the insides as opposed to the outsides.”

Ja-nee. You get the impression that a terrible fate might befall you should you be so foolish as not to honour this sage advice. It would be like a French chef finding potatoes in the French Onion Soup or Van der Hum in the Crêpes Suzette.

But there are many alternative recipes for braaibroodjies, and even Jan Braai, after having written that, then goes on to give us 38 more recipes which range from “The Supermodel” (which contains tomatoes and bell peppers and red onion and feta), a recipe designed for his book cover, to spanakopita, chorizo, curry mince, peri peri chicken liver, snoek and bolognese.

Another Jan, Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, is among surprisingly few voices in the braaibroodjie world. Despite his culinary status he is not above the joys of the braaibroodjie which he surely must have grown up eating. On his website he writes: “There is one topic of conversation that quickly spirals into a two-hour debate; at times heated, at times philosophical.” For every South African, he adds, it’s the braaibroodjie, “that mandatory side dish without which a braai is simply not complete”.

Jan avers that there’s no such thing as the “original”, this after asking his social media community to have their say on the matter. “The feedback was overwhelming!” he writes. “Like Erna Jacobs puts it: ‘Don’t mess with the braaibroodjie!’ But then she doesn’t say what a braaibroodjie should be. So, how do you know when you’re messing with it? Oh no! If there was ever any doubt that the braaibroodjie is a serious matter, this was when I realised, doubt no more and proceed with caution.” A world of opinions ensued, further proof of how strongly we feel about this braai-side delicacy.

But those with long memories happen to remember that there was a time when that braaibroodjie you were offered at braais, every time you were blessed to have one, in any town or city and over many decades, invariably contained a few trusted ingredients, so there can be no doubt that Jan Braai is correct when he says that the original is indeed that.

And though there are indeed naysayers, the consensus can only be that the original braaibroodjie at most of the old South African braais contained cheese, tomato, onion, chutney, salt and pepper. And that the bread must only be buttered on the outsides.

Why outside and not in? There’s a French parallel for this: the equally humble but equally wonderful croque monsieur, which is buttered on the outside while the inner side of the slice is spread with mustard and the contents include ham, cheese and béchamel sauce. Suggest to a Frenchman that the bread should be buttered inside and not out and we cannot guarantee your safety.

So, why? Well, the other thing that a croque monsieur has in common with a braaibroodjie is that in the process of cooking, it melds and becomes one thing. The contents and the bread meld as if glued, as if they could never be parted again, like avowed lovers. And it’s a perfect marriage.

The butter outside does the work of turning golden brown and helping create a superb crust that crunches magically when you bite into it. So, as with the croque monsieur, the braaibroodjie holds a special place in our hearts because of the beautiful thing that it is, but it also deserves a hallowed place in the annals of our joint culinary heritage.

And that is why we love the humble, wonderful braaibroodjie. Here’s my recipe for it. DM/TGIFood


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    They say the WC, does braai broodjies because they don’t know how to make pap en wors,luckily I stay in WC

    • Dudley Reid says:

      As a group of contactors at a famous Posh Eastern Cape Resort… Where cows even gather on the beach
      Saturday night is Seafood night, with generous helpings of Shell fish.
      One day dear lady louise decided that seafood was too good for contactors, in the past we would join in on this Saturday Fare..
      “We have decided we will give you braai packs, you will have to braai and eat up at your rooms on the deck..”.
      Must say we felt a little peeved, but we moved on and Braaied, everything. was supplied… the most amazing quality usual fare braai packs…
      This carried on for a few weeks until Danie came and said ,oom D cant we make Braaiboodjies ….
      Saturday night became BB night…
      We organised all the ingedients we needed, Saturday night was never the same…
      Original BBs
      Bacon BBs
      Prawn & Mayo BBs(no idea how they got there)
      Yes we strayed from the original recipe but that was how it was..
      Thunderbum chilli sauce whew
      But the strangest thing of all was, how our numbers grew each Saturday, with non other than hotel staff including some managment…
      Our Braaibroodjies became sought after Saturday Fare… until
      lady louise’s announcement …
      “No more braaing on the Deck…”
      Back to Saturday Seafood it was… how I miss those sometimes exotic Braaibroodtjies..

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