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Curry in a hurry


CHEW ON THIS: In Singapore (above) and Bangkok (top), a taste of satay and wok-fried noodles are the best way of connecting with the city

No destination is complete without a taste of its street food. A trip to South Africa then is unfinished if you haven't ventured into the heart of Durban and taken messy bites of the celebrated bunny chow

When the plate lands on the table with a thud, I find myself staring at a hollowedout loaf of bread that has been filled with lots of chicken curry. I'm about to take a bite of "bunny chow" - or bunny as it is popularly called - one of South Africa's most celebrated street dishes. Put simply, it's a loaf of bread, the centre of which has been scooped out and the pit then generously filled with spoonfuls of chicken gravy, topped with coarsely chopped raw onion, finely diced tomato, sprigs of coriander and some Caesar salad on the side. The offering is rich and spicy and, of course, very filling. 

The street food of any country, as any enthusiastic traveller knows, offers a glimpse into the culture, history and quite possibly even the philosophy of that nation - it can give you a taste of the very ethos which defines that country or city. Think about it. When in Old Delhi, the smell of hot jalebis frying in hot oil merge with the crunching sound of pani puris that the old hand at the golgappa thela deftly doles out to patrons;in Singapore's China Town, one must not miss the sizzling sounds of satay being fried and served from food carts. And on Bangkok's streets, you will be exposed to flaming hot charcoal woks in which Pad Thai noodles are fried along with bean curd palm sugar and nam plaa (fermented fish sauce). In the developed nations, including the US and the UK, the proverbial melting pots of cultures, various communities influence the food found on the street - falafel, pretzels, pizzas, biryanis, hot dogs, all slathered with sauces, curries, toppings and flavours which can comfort, calm and soothe you. 

The strength of street food is that it gives you moments of gastronomic meditation, helping you connect to a new destination in a way that nothing else can. So, in Old Delhi's Jama Masjid area, when you reach out for your plate of nihari (for the uninitiated, slowcooked lamb drizzled with spices) at 6. 30 am in the morning, you know it's an experience that cannot possibly be duplicated anywhere else in the world. 

I get the same feeling as I take a generous bite of my bunny chow, sitting in the rather crowded Oriental Express, a restaurant that specialises in bunny chow and is located at Durban's Workshop Shopping Centre, originally a railway workshop which was transformed into a shopping centre in 1986. Seated with a group of hungry friends, we all opt for bunny chows in a variety of fillings (meat, keema, chicken), including a tasty vegetarian rajma or bean stuffing. 

Much like its taste (fiery, bursting with flavours of whole spices, curry leaves, red chillies), the origins of bunny chow too are sprinkled with spicy legends. Some say it originated back in the early 19th century at the Royal Durban Golf Course when the Indian caddies (given the segregation laws under the Apartheid regime) were not allowed to use utensils on the premises. So, they took a loaf of bread, scooped out the centre, filled the pit with curry and voila! lunch was ready. 

Minal Hajratwala, author of Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents, about the migratory journeys of her family, writes about her great-great-uncle Ganda Kapitan, who was 11 years old when he left India on a boat for South Africa. In 1912, seven years after migrating, he started a food stall called the GC Kapitan Vegetarian Restaurant in the Little India area of Durban. It stayed open for 80 glorious years and lived through, among other events of historical importance, most of apartheid. With the government of South Africa banning black Africans from eating in Indian restaurants, Kapitan began "takeaways" for his African customers. That is when he and others in the area, says Hajratwala, thought of serving chicken, mutton and vegetable curries inside loaves of bread so customers could carry them away easily. 

As said earlier, biting into a country's street food is like biting into its history, and sometimes understanding the influence one culture might have had on another. Finally, it's an experience to savour and relish. Not surprisingly, my clean plate of bunny chow says just that.

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