What is a Braai? ‘Tjops, Dop & Beyond
Hibachi, grigliata, barbacoa – the ritual of cooking over an open fire is unique across the globe. For South Africans, the same can be said about braai. We explore this local tradition, what ignited it, and why it’s such a big part of our culture.
Besides the Bokke, brandy, and biltong, braai is one of the cultural pillars of South Africa. Whether it’s a game day or birthday celebration, weekend jol (party), or simply loadshedding…
What is a Braai?
First things first, when it comes to the word ‘braai’, it’s the one word in the South African English dictionary that could have one of four meanings.
Braai or braaing, is a method of cooking over an open fire using either wood or coals. Braai could also refer to the actual event, a social gathering of friends or family coming together; braai is also used to describe the cooking appliance, one of the most popular brands being Weber. Lastly, and arguably the most important distinction, braai refers to grilled food, typically meat or ‘shisanyama’.
The History of Braai
Besides the Bokke, brandy, and biltong, braai is one of the cultural pillars of South Africa. Whether it’s a game day or birthday celebration, weekend jol (party), or simply loadshedding, braaing is a rite of passage that’s as common as it is special.
The word itself is believed to have originated in the 17th century and stems from the Dutch word ‘braden’ – the literal translation is ‘to roast’, ‘to be cooked in the oven’ or ‘cooked over an open fire’. The Afrikaans term for braden is ‘braai’ – historians aren’t certain of how the word was invented, but the language itself is a Dutch dialect derived from European colonisers almost 300 years ago.
Today, ‘braai’ is one of the most common words used to describe the flame-grilled tradition in South Africa, despite being a melting pot of cultures with 12 official languages spoken across the nation.
On Heritage Day, observed annually on 24 September, it’s common practice for locals to host braais. Some even requested the name be changed to ‘Braai Day’ for this reason. Over the years, the holiday has taken on different names from Shaka Zulu Day to Heritage Day.
In 2007, South African food personality, author and entrepreneur, Jan Scannell, better known by his nickname ‘Jan Braai’, tried to implement the name change to National Braai Day. While some were in favour of the petition, it was mostly met with controversy by locals who considered it an insult to the true meaning of the holiday – a day commemorating the diverse cultures and people of the proverbial ‘rainbow nation’.
‘Tjops, Dop & Beyond
Needless to say, braaing is so much more than just a bunch of people standing in front of a fire; this flame-grilled culture has evolved throughout the years and has become so ingrained in South African culture.
Braais are typically an intimate culinary affair; groups of family and friends host braais in the comfort of their homes. Some venues also have public braai spots where people grill food in scenic settings, be it at national parks, beaches, or campsites.
‘Bring and braais’ are also a common phenomenon where everyone present at the gathering contributes meat and booze. Being a nation of meat eaters, guests can expect a literal flame-grilled feast. Everything from steak and chicken to boerewors (beef sausage) and sosaties (chicken, lamb or beef kebabs) are up for grabs.
Besides the smorgasbord of meats, a braai is not complete without sides and salads. The usual suspects include, but are not limited to, potato salad – often served alongside chakalaka, and perhaps a Greek salad. When it comes to carbs, mielie pap (stiff cooked ground maize) is a favourite – and because we love our mielies, corn on the cob is usually on the menu as well.
Braaibroodjies are another carb staple; these grilled sandwiches are simple but incredibly satisfying. They often feature toppings such as cheese (cheddar/gouda), seasoned tomato slices, and onion. When grilled, the buttered bread becomes deliciously crispy and slightly charred and the cheese is melted – basic, but a guilty pleasure nonetheless.
With the rise in plant-based eating, more locals have become vegan/vegetarian; thankfully, meat alternatives are available at grocery stores. Depending on the individual and their preferences, they might request that a separate braai grid be used to cook their food – the goes for the preparation of halaal meat for friends and family of Islamic faith.
What else is on the menu?
Fish braais are also very popular in South Africa, where whole fish is grilled – yellowtail and snoek are two of the most common species enjoyed – this also depends on availability and whether certain species are exempt from the red list. Crayfish is another popular seafood braai item; some might prefer to braai it, while others prefer to make it potjie-style.
Locals are so passionate about this braai ritual that entire cooking competitions are hosted across the nation.
If you’ve never experienced potjie, you’re missing out. The slow-cooked tradition is synonymous with braai culture and is deeply nostalgic for many locals. Potjie is a dish cooked in a three-legged cast iron pot over the coals.
Typically, potjie can be likened to stew consisting of meat and veg, steeped in stock or brown onion gravy. That being said, it’s so much more than your average stew. There are tons of variations of potjie, from tomato bredie to vegetable potjie, beefy beauties and beyond.
While it takes hours to cook, the end result is always worth the wait, especially when it comes to the tender, fall-off-the-bone meat. If you wanted to, you could even add dumplings (dombolo) and make a meal of it. Locals are so passionate about this braai ritual that entire cooking competitions are hosted across the nation, often during Heritage Month.
Come For the Braai, Stay For the Vibes
Much like potjies, traditional ‘tjop and dop Braais can be a full-day affair, and being a social event, beer, Brandy & Coke, and other boozy concoctions are part of the package deal. Those smart enough will gather by the snacks table – while they wait for the meat. Cheeseboards and charcuterie are often served, as well as other appetisers – biltong is non-negotiable, any good host will tell you this.
Entertainment is always a gamble; besides mingling and catching up with friends and family, feel-good music and board games like Uno or 30 Seconds keep guests entertained. Whether you’re on salad duty or the designated braai master, everyone plays a part in ensuring the event is enjoyable and stress-free.
While braais are casual and anything usually goes, there are some dos and don’ts:
- arrive just before the meat is done; respect the host enough to show up at a reasonable time, or communicate your estimated time of arrival.
- bring a random plus one; clear any additional guests with the host.
- leave the braaimaster alone if the rest of the party is inside; keep them company.
- second guess the braai master; trust them enough to not overcook the steak.
- flee the party without helping the host to clean up; many hands make light work.
- be clear about the expectation and what you should bring/contribute on the day.
- ask everyone attending whether they have any dietary preferences; this will help everyone feel included, especially vegans/vegetarians/health-conscious eaters.
- if the host is catering drinks, ensure that there will be non-alcoholic beverages for teetotalers/kids/pregnant people.
- bring an extra Tupperware in case the host offers to dish leftovers for you. No one likes it when their Tupperware is being held hostage.
- enjoy the good food and company.
Many countries have their unique way of braaing – Americans have whole-hog barbecues and cookouts; contrary to belief, Australians enjoy ribs instead of ‘shrimp on the barbie’; Greeks grill Branzino. As for South Africans, we do it all. This age-old tradition remains sacred to locals, whether young, old or inexperienced in the fire-making department.
Make the most of your braai with these tips for easy summer entertaining.
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