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Throwback Thursday: Mutton bunny chow

Throwback Thursday: Mutton bunny chow
Tony Jackman’s mutton bunny chow. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

The best thing about a bunny chow, for me, is the way the sauce from the curry melds with the bread inside the crust to create utter food lust. The rest of it is pretty fabulous too.

A bunny chow needs a proper Durban curry. Luckily, our family has a long history with Durban and Pietermaritzburg, so we have an old tradition of buying Durban curry masala mixed for us by a sari-clad lady in one or other spice shop, hidden away among all the much larger shops in most malls in KwaZulu-Natal. So that’s my starting point: a good, hot Durban masala. (Point number 2? Plenty of it.) 

A Durban curry is hot, not for the squeamish or for those who can’t seem to grasp the truth that a burning mouth is a desirable thing. It’s just burn; look past that to the flavour kick you’re getting out of it.

Then we get to the bread. I cringe when I see a bunny chow on a poncy menu that calls for “artisanal bread”. Come off it. That’s a “whole new level” of pretentiousness, to use an overworked current expression. The whole point of a bunny is that it is made using good old-fashioned cheaper-than-chips “government loaf”. Just a plain loaf of common-or-garden white bread. The sturdiness of the loaf when cut in half and hollowed out (but not too much) is what makes it able to hold the curry within.

The precise history of the bunny chow is disputed, but the prevalent belief makes sense: that Indian workers who had come to the then Natal province as indentured labourers used hollowed out bread loaves as a vessel to carry their curries to the sugar cane fields for lunch. Why “bunny”? This is believed to be simply a bastardisation of the name of the Bania caste. And chow, of course, just means “food” or “to eat”.

Whatever the truth, the ultimate outcome is a joyful one. The humble dish turned into a national treasure. The best way to honour the tradition is to acknowledge its humble roots and use a plain old “government” loaf – literally – as the carrier.

I’ve been making mutton curries my way for decades, but I wanted to get it as close as possible to a proper “Durban curry”, so I consulted my friend Erica Platter’s brilliant book of exactly that title. In it, on page 46, is the authentic Britannia Hotel Mutton Bunny Curry. I did not adhere to it strictly, because I have my ways and thoughts and palate, but I do recommend it because of the hotel’s famous ways with curry.

The chief difference is that I included cumin seeds, which their recipe does not use (which I found surprising). I also beefed up, if you’ll pardon the expression, the tomato component. Their recipe calls for only one medium tomato, not enough for my curry taste, so I used a can of chopped tomatoes instead. Yes, Italian ones, because they have a whack of flavour. Oh, and I used four times as much turmeric. Don’t worry, it will not dominate if your masala mix is strong enough.

Finally, their recipe calls for 2 tsp ginger and garlic paste. I used three garlic cloves and a 3 cm piece of fresh ginger, all minced, which is pretty much the same thing, only more of it.

Here’s my adaptation of the Britannia recipe. And yes, the “4 Tbsp masala” is not an error. Heaped! And our Durban masala mix is very strong.

Am I happy with the outcome? I wouldn’t be telling you about it if not, so… be brave, be very brave…

(Serves 4)

Ingredients

2 ordinary loaves of white bread of the “government loaf” variety

Cooking oil, about 4 Tbsp

600 g lean mutton, cubed

2 medium onions, chopped

2 bay leaves

2 cinnamon sticks

1 Tbsp fennel seeds

1 Tbsp cumin seeds

1 tsp ground turmeric

3 garlic cloves, minced

3 cm piece of very fresh ginger, peeled and minced

4 Tbsp best masala

10 small curry leaves

1 x 400 can chopped tomatoes

Salt to taste (be generous)

Water to cover (about 800 ml)

Coriander to garnish

Shredded carrot salad to serve (see end of method)

Method

Cut your mutton into bite sized chunks. I used mutton leg, and I cleaned away the sinews and kept the bones and fat to be frozen for a future stock. 

Heat cooking oil in a heavy pot and add the chopped onion, cinnamon, bay leaves, cumin seeds, fennel seeds and powdered turmeric. Simmer very gently for four or five minutes or until the onions have softened but not caramelised. Give it a stir now and then.

Add that hot masala and the ginger and garlic, and cook gently for another two or three minutes.

Add the tomato and simmer for three more minutes.

Add all the meat, give it a good stir so that it is all coated with the rich curry sauce, and let it cook at a simmer for five minutes or so.

Throw in the curry leaves, season to taste with salt (be generous, curry can take it), and add enough cold water to cover everything.

Bring it to a boil then put a lid on and turn down the heat to a very gentle simmer. Let it cook until the mutton is tender but not falling apart. You don’t want your meat to disintegrate into the sauce. That works for some curries, but is not ideal for a bunny.

I made “half bunnies”. Slice a plain white loaf in half (trim a bit off the top if you want it smaller).  Hollow each section out, but don’t get carried away. Don’t scrape away too close to the bottom (or sides) or the curry might burst through.  Fill generously with the curry and sprinkle some chopped coriander on top. You can put a little “lid” of bread on top if you like.

Serve it garnished with chopped coriander and a side of carrot salad. Just grate 2 carrots and add 1 Tbsp white vinegar and some chopped coriander, 1 chopped red chilli and a little salt.

Now grab a bib and roll your sleeves up, this is gonna be messy… DM/TGIFood 

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected] 

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  • Gert McCarthy says:

    I copied your Bunny Chow recipe to the letter, and YEAH, I tucked in bravely, but had to get me aglass of milk halfway thru. But nevertheless, me and the wife dig in, and I must confess, it is the best curry I ever cooked. Appreciated. Gert McCarthy, Secunda

  • Shaheen Biseswar says:

    Looks legit. Will give it a shot. You are right about the cumin seed – it is or should be required. Have you considered mint leaves?

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