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What is a South African ‘braai’?

Lighting up a fire to cook a meal is part of the South African way of life. But if you look a little further, you will find it is actually part of most African cultures – cooking local food over an open fire for family and friends.

Now, there are many ways to braai (barbeque) and everyone has their own unique style and personal preferences. The type of fuel you use (charcoal or wood), the meat you choose and sauce or spice you like to add are some of the factors that will influence your final meal. And don’t forget to ask your guests the most important question, how would they like their meat done? Well done, medium or rare?  This will influence the temperature your fire needs to be and how long the meat will need to be cooked. And yes, some do prefer their steak undercooked.

The one thing that does not differ much though, is the social event surrounding a braai. The crackling fire under the night sky makes for a relaxed atmosphere and opens the floor to plenty of conversations and laughter. The main part of the meal is the meat (also called braaivleis). This could either be sausage (boerewors), kebabs, chops, steaks, or chicken.  Normally, a starch would accompany the meat. Depending on the cultural background, it could be porridge (pap), which is similar to polenta and a staple food to many African communities. Sandwiches with onion, tomato, and cheese (also called braai broodjies) are also braaied on the fire and a favorite amongst many. Others prefer potatoes either boiled, baked or as a cold potato salad.

The cultural elements regarding the preparation and cooking of the food vary. If you get invited to a South African braai, don’t be surprised if the men gather around the fire, chatting and braaing the meat. The women normally gather in the kitchen socializing while they prepare the side dishes. There is also an unspoken rule of not interfering with the person in charge of braaing the meat.

There are many different customs relating to a barbeque and cooking with fire all over the world.  With a South African braai, the social element is probably the most important, and the meat and starch are the features of the evening. So no matter where you visit in South Africa, you have to make sure that you at least try your hand at or attend one braai, and of course, only then you would really be able to answer the question, ‘What is a braai‘?