Trust me. I was skeptical too. When my then boyfriend, now husband tried to explain the beauty of a South African Braai, I’ll be honest, I didn’t really get it. It sounded like a basic barbecue. A gathering of friends and family eating food from the grill. “Our barbecues are great,” I argued. “My dad makes a mean burger.” But whenever we cooked out on the grill, my husband’s face said it all – he longed for his beloved braai.
Just a little bit of background for those who have never heard of a braai. The word braai comes from the word braaivleis, which is Afrikaans for roasted meat. Braai means “barbecue” and vleis means “meat.” The word is pronounced “bry” and although it originated with the Afrikaans, the word and social custom has been adopted by many ethnic cultures within Southern Africa.
When I first visited South Africa in 2010, the night I arrived I was treated to the first of what would be many braais. I can honestly say I will never see a barbecue the same again. The food, the drinks, it was so much similar, so simple, but somehow so much better than our typical American cook-out. I’ll try to explain in ways my husband couldn’t, the top five reasons a South African braai takes the gold over an American barbecue.
1. A braai is acceptable for ANY occasion
That’s right. Birthday braai, christmas braai, going away braai, welcome home braai, a Wednesday night just to get a few friends together braai, a graduation braai, housewarming braai, these are all perfectly acceptable times to have a braai.
A braai, unlike a barbecue, is not only reserved for a Summer Day, Memorial Day or Labor Day, it’s an any and every day celebration of life. While Americans bring out the sandwich platters, fingers snacks, and hot dogs, South Africans light up the braai.
2. It’s a process
A braai revolves around the fire, and the food. The food is cooked on (as the name of the gathering would suggest) a braai, which is basically a grill. A major difference between the two types of cooking is that South Africans traditionally use wood or briquettes (charcoal) when they braai. This means it takes significantly longer to get a fire going and cook the food, but that’s the point. A braai is all about the experience, the company and the quality of the food. It’s something to be savored, and in this time of convenience and hurriedness, I think that’s something we can all appreciate.
3. The food and “dop”
Ah, the food. You will not find plain jane hot dogs here. No way. South Africans love flavor, and food served at a braai doesn’t disappoint. We are talking boerewors, a spicy sausage, full of a beef and pork mix, and sometimes lamb, spiced with cloves, coriander seed, pepper, nutmeg and allspice. It never contains mechanically separated of processed meat and no more than 10% fat. Sayonara hotdogs. Also served can be any combination of steaks, rack of lamb, chicken, pork rashers, sosaties (kebabs), all types of seafood, and in my case, I’ve been known to throw on veggie burger or two. So. many. options!
Side dishes are similar to the all american barbecue, and guests will often bring a dish. Examples are green salad, garlic bread, or my new current obsession, braai rolls, potato salad or potato bake. I’ve also hear of pap being served, but I’ve never had it. As for desserts, you can find cheesecake, and traditional South African desserts like milk tart, malva pudding, koeksisters, peppermint crisp, etc. Mouth watering yet?
And a braai wouldn’t be a braai without the dop. Dop is the Afrikaans word for “drink” and trust me this is something you will never have a shortage of at a braai. Whether it’s beer, wine, cider, or a cocktail, if it’s cold, it’s consumed.
4. It brings people together
A braai is the perfect excuse to get friends and family, young and old together. You could even say it brings the country together. Heritage Day, September 24, is a public holiday that has been coined “Braai Day.” No matter the language spoken or skin color, love of meat cooked over a wood fire is something that all South Africans share. And it’s something that they are all proud to have in their heritage.
I can safely say it’s no coincidence that since I’ve been living in South Africa, I’ve found that all of the friendships I’ve made have been at braais. Something about the relaxed atmosphere (and maybe the drinks) just makes me feel chatty. Speaking of the atmosphere…
5. The atmosphere
In our Florida apartment, my husband almost got arrested for trying to braai on a weber grill on our second floor balcony. Apparently there is a fire code in Florida that states you can’t grill less then 30 feet from your house. Lame, right?
Most homes in South Africa have a braai installed in their backyard or on their veranda, often times they will be in a lapa, a traditional style South African hut that keeps anything beneath it remarkably cool (I have no doubt a grill in a lapa would be illegal in the states). At our flat now, we have a built-in braai right on our patio! Also, wherever you go, there is usually a braai setup. At the guest house we stayed at in Kruger, they had a whole enclosed entertainment area for the braai, as well as an outdoor pool and sitting area.
Americans may know how to do some things, but I can tell you without a doubt that the South Africans have nailed the braai, and it is something I am lucky to be able to experience on a weekly basis. When you are sitting outside, enjoying the beautiful South African climate, a cold dop in hand, warm glow of the fire nearby and good company surrounding you, it’s impossible not to get the feeling that this is how life is meant to be lived.