Grilling is a big deal in South Africa. We even have a day dedicated to it—Sept. 24, Heritage Day, AKA Braai Day; a public holiday where we celebrate our heritage by firing up the grill.
It sounds peculiar: a whole nation celebrating its heritage by cooking meat over an open flame. But for South Africans, making food over a fire is something that connects us all. For such a culturally diverse country (we have 11 official languages) with a complex, troubled past, braaing (barbecuing) is one thing that penetrates racial and economic lines. Everybody in South Africa braais.
It would be silly to think a style of cooking could unite an entire country. But it really does help. Before ‘Braai Day’ became ‘Braai Day’ it was simply Heritage Day—a day when South Africans were urged to celebrate their culture. It’s a nice idea in theory, but when you’re from such a wildly diverse country, how do you “celebrate” a singular heritage? It was in 2005 when cookbook author and cooking show host Jan Scannell, AKA Jan Braai, established the “Braai Day” movement. He created a show broadcast on a local TV channel, where he embarked on a braai journey across the country, exploring different types of braai cultures. The braai movement became such a hit that it caught the attention of Desmond Tutu, who in 2007, became the patron of the National Braai Day initiative.
“We have 11 official languages, but [there is] one word for this institution: braai. It has the fantastic potential to bind us together,” said Tutu during a press function.
It’s nice to have a day dedicated to braaing, but it’s not the only day when South Africans light up the grill. We will braai on any given day—be it a public holiday or a casual Monday night. Come winter or summer, we’ll braai. Bought a steak for dinner? Throw it on the braai. No matter what part of the country you’re from or what language you speak, braaing culture is usually the same, and there are always a few “rules.” Gas grills are a big no-no, only wood or charcoal should be used, braaing usually begins in the afternoon (around 3 p.m.—it’s a process that cannot be rushed), the meal should include meat (chops, boerewors—a type of sausage), salad (often potato salad or coleslaw) and a carbohydrate (jacket potatoes, pap—a cornmeal mash—or braai broodtjies—buttered bread).
Unlike most of my countrymen, growing up I didn’t like braais. (There I said it.) I didn’t like that braais consumed the entire day (they usually run into the night) and, frankly, I didn’t love the food. Perhaps I attended too many university “bring and braais,” where people would bring random cuts of meat, which would be thrown onto the grill and dished out amongst everyone—sharing food is a wonderful concept, until someone eats your rosemary-marinated steak and you’re left with an off-cut of boerewors (sausage) or a lone lamb chop. I didn’t like that we’d always eat off paper plates (this was to minimize washing up—because everybody is always invited to a braai) and the coleslaw or potato salad would inevitably soak through and form a damp patch on your lap.
I tried to go with the flow because I didn’t want to be labeled a snob, but truth be told, I was one.
I didn’t like braais until I moved to New York. During my first summer, I was graciously invited to rooftop BBQs, where the hosts would lay out nachos with store-bought guacamole. They’d toss bright red sausages on the grill and wedge them inside soft potato rolls lined with mustard and ketchup. The idea of barbecuing—coming together with friends and throwing food on the grill—felt the same as a braai, but it also felt entirely different. Where was the boerewors and onion-y salads with their pungent sweaty flavor? Where was the milky coleslaw that soaked through my paper plate?
Maybe I was just desperately homesick, but I missed Braai Day. Living in South Africa, I’d failed to realize that braaing wasn’t really about the food, but rather about the gathering that brought an intense sense of inclusivity. Beyond the paper plates and overcooked lamb chops, was something so much deeper: lighting a fire and cooking food was a simple act that everyone felt connected to—no matter your language or creed or skin color.
Now that I’ve long graduated from university, I no longer have to endure offcuts of boerewors and soggy paper plates. But when I return to South Africa every December, one of the first things on my to-do list is to have a braai. It doesn’t have to be big (a small fish braai for two!) and it doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can simply involve the gathering of a few friends and family, and preferably no paper plates or lamb chops.