Living with one foot in France and the other firmly rooted in South Africa, I have come to learn that both cultures feel passionately about their native cuisine. And in both cases, there is one topic of conversation that quickly spirals into a two-hour debate; at times heated, at times philosophical. For the French, nothing fires up a culinary conversation like a baguette. What sound it should make when you run your fingers over it, how to know when it is fresh, where to find the best baguettes, and how to eat it (especially when it comes to foreigners), are like chapters in an ever-evolving book. For South Africans, it’s the braaibroodjie – that mandatory side-dish without which a braai is simply not complete – two simple slices of government-issue white bread sandwiching a combination of cheese, tomato and onion, fumed with the smoky embers of our fireside celebrations. Or is that where we underestimate this complex creation?
The original braaibroodjie
As it turns out, there’s no such thing. You’d think everyone would agree on what an original braaibroodjie is, like an American telling you a basic hamburger consists of a beef patty on a bun. Not so. So, I took to social media and asked real South Africans what their ideal braaibroodjie was. The feedback was overwhelming! Like Erna Jacobs puts it: “Don’t mess with the braaibroodjie!” But then she doesn’t say what a braaibroodjie should be. So, how do you know when you’re messing with it? Oh no! If there was ever any doubt that the braaibroodjie is a SERIOUS matter, this was when I realised, doubt no more and proceed with caution.
To most South Africans, like Gillian Price, the original involves a combination of cheese, tomato and onion, while Kim Fraser was quick to add Maldon sea salt and black pepper to the mix. Lulu van der Spuy insists that this where you draw the line: “NO chutney!” she says. But others, like Marietjie Smith, Gabriela Jacobs, Carina le Roux, Stained Fiona et al. all insist that it’s not a braaibroodjie without a dollop of Mrs Ball’s Chutney, that tangy South African classic. Charlet Pasmore even adds mayonaise to her chutney. And she’s not alone. Then there was Chrisna Chez Viljoen, who feels equally at home with chutney or apricot jam. Hmmm… apricot jam? Of course! Another South African fave, as endorsed by Susan Buitendacht (who does the whole snoek-and-apricot-jam combo) and William Steenhof who opts for a more eccentric combination of peanut butter, onions, apricot jam and sambal (he’s Dutch).
So, deciding on what constitutes a classic braaibroodjie is an impossible task. So, perhaps it’s more like one task with three different versions.
Place 6 slices of white bread on your work surface. Butter each slice. The next step is very important – place thin slices of mature cheddar on all the slices of bread (on both sides). Place thinly sliced tomatoes on top of the cheese and season with salt and pepper. Place thinly sliced onion rings on top. If you like chutney or smooth apricot jam on your braaibroodjie, this would be a good time add it. Close your braaibroodjies and braai them over medium hot coals until the cheese starts oozing out the sides.
Keeping It South African
At this stage, if I haven’t messed (too much) with the braaibroodjie already, I love the idea of a biltong version, as suggested by Cathy le Roux, Cheryl Vermeulen and Dee-Ann Lindeman-Erasmus, who gets very posh with her biltong dust and yeast-based pizza dough that she treats like roosterkoek, that beloved, charred, fire-baked bread we all love and adore. Where I feel Dee-Ann starts messing with the braaibroodjie is with the bread. If it’s anything other than a standard-issue white loaf it’s just a melt (sorry Dee-Ann). But what caught my attention was the wholegrain mustard. What a great combination!
The biltong and cheddar cheese braaibroojie
Place 6 slices of white bread on your work surface. Butter each slice. Place thin slices of white mature cheddar on all the slices of bread (both sides). Place moist-sliced beef biltong on 3 of the bread slices. Spread a thin layer of wholegrain mustard on the other 3 slices of bread. Close your braaibroodjies and braai them over medium hot coals until the cheese has melted.
A braaibroodjie with a bit of je ne sais quoi
I couldn’t resist! Trust me, you’ll be surprised at how far some South Africans will go to create next-level braaibroodjies. Rina van Rooyen says her mother adds “proper café slap chips” to her basic braaibroodjie. I believe we’d call that a Gatsby braaibroodjie in Cape Town. Ursula Kilian gets super fancy with her fried periwinkle, onion, garlic and cream braaibroodjies. Trianne Amarchund from Durban does an exotic mince curry and cheddar braaibroodjie. Tracy Langfield Frost opts for ultra-decadent caramelised whisky onions on hers. And Brett Webb just about falls off the trend scale with pulled pork shoulder and kimchi with wasabi aioli (he’s from Cape Town, of course).
But I picked up that many of my fellow South Africans share my appetite for brie, which goes beautifully with caramelised onion and fresh thyme.
The brie and onion marmalade braaibroojie
Place 6 slices of white bread on your work surface. Butter each slice. Slice 250 g brie cheese and place the cheese on all the slices of bread. Spoon some onion marmalade on top and sprinkle with fresh thyme leaves. Close your braaibroodjies and braai them over medium hot coals till the brie has melted.
A story about fusion braaibroodjies would not be complete without a detour in Italy. When I read that Wikus Visser’s braaibroodjies take the form of freshly chopped basil, tomato, white cheddar, thyme and a little garlic, I felt like getting on the next bus to Apricale. But I’ve noticed that a lot of South Africans, like Lizelle Retief, Gary Marriott, Belinda Richards and Leisha Oucamp seem very familiar with a basil-touched braaibroodjie, which led me to think: why not give the braaibroodjie the Caprese treatment?
The caprese braaibroodjie
Place 6 slices of white bread on your work surface. Butter each slice. Place 2 slices of mozzarella cheese on each slice of bread. Place 3 slices of tomatoes on 3 of the slices of bread and season with salt and pepper. Spread a thin layer of basil pesto on all the slices of bread. Place some fresh basil leaves on the slices of bread without tomatoes. Close your braaibroodjies and braai them over medium hot coals until the mozzarella has melted.
When all is said and done, should the braaibroodjie remain exiled to the side-dish section of South African braai cuisine or could it become the main attraction at a braai? I’m beginning to think it already is.