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A South African Barbecue

I spent last week in and around Cape Town, South Africa, traveling with my mom to attend my brother's wedding. All we knew ahead of time about South African cuisine was that they love a good cookout, and sure enough, our first meal there turned out to be a braai (Afrikaans for "roasted meat," thoug...

I spent last week in and around Cape Town, South Africa, traveling with my mom to attend my brother's wedding. All we knew ahead of time about South African cuisine was that they love a good cookout, and sure enough, our first meal there turned out to be a braai (Afrikaans for "roasted meat," though like "barbecue," the word is used to describe the event as well as the food itself) at the home of my brother's new in-laws.

Manning the braai, a traditional South African barbecue, at a home in Cape Town.

They seemed surprised that I was so impressed by the wood-fired brick oven built into their outdoor patio—apparently those are about as ubiquitous in South Africa as backyard gas grills are in America. There, as here, the grill tends to be literally manned, while the kitchen is women's turf (at least in the homes I visited). On that particular Sunday afternoon, a guy named Willem was the chef d'jour.

See the boxy metal container inside the grill in this photo? That's where Willem stoked a wood fire for at least an hour while the meat marinated. From time to time, he shook the container so that hot embers fell out and could be raked into a layer under the rest of the grill, creating a low, even source of heat.

braai wors

"A good braai can take all day. It's not just a meal, it's an occasion, a time to get together and talk and relax outside," he explained as my stomach rumbled. Finally, he brought out the meat, starting with a long rope of boerewors (sausage) which he coiled inside a clamshell-style metal grilling basket.

When I asked what was in it, he shrugged.

"I don't know, just minced meat. Boer means farmers, and wors means sausage," he explained.

"So....it's made of minced farmers?" I responded, generating a round of startled laughter.

Next up were chicken sosaties, or what I would call kebabs, one batch marinated in mustard and yogurt and the next in a sticky-sweet barbecue glaze. Then came lamb chops, and finally, some three hours after it all started, the food was ready to eat.

I don't usually eat much meat, but when traveling, my mantra is "be open," which extends to both mind and mouth. Besides, I was ravenous! So I dug in, following the lead of others. We ate the meat with our hands, dipping pieces of wors in a sweet curry sauce, picking up the lamb chops like sandwiches, and plucking bites of wonderfully tender chicken off the skewers. For side dishes, there was also mealie pap, a kind of corn porridge served with tomato and onion sauce, and a salad replete with chunks of avocado (or just avo, as they call it).

Pretty tasty, but if I were braai-ing, I'd love to try some vegetables and fish, or even a pizza...
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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