In South Africa, the 24th of September is Heritage Day, a day where all South Africans celebrate their rich heritage and diverse cultures. It’s also known as National Braai Day, and everyone is encouraged to come together, light a fire, and braai, because, despite the many backgrounds of its citizens, there’s one thing we all have in common.
Braai, pronounced “bry” like dry with a b, stems from the Afrikaans word "braaivleis," meaning "grilled meat."
I miss a lot of things about living in South Africa, but most of all, I miss a good braai. You would think that no matter where in the world you are, the smell of meat cooking over a fire would be the same, but I absolutely disagree. Braai smells different, and it smells like home. South Africans find any excuse to braai, and it usually includes any or all of the following activities: watching rugby or soccer, drinking, and catching up with friends and family. I wouldn’t say it’s limited to seasons either; come rain or shine, there’s always braai.
Braai is also different from barbecue in the way that it’s traditionally prepared. Wood is usually burnt over a long period of time, with meat being cooked over the hot coals that are produced by this process. Obviously, over time, this has evolved to include the use of ready-to-use charcoal or even a gas braai (we refer to a grill as a braai as well) for those who aren’t too concerned about being judged on their braaing abilities. There are some purists who feel that anything other than wood is cheating. Others will argue that there is also a difference in taste between the charcoal and gas methods, and as someone who’s used both, I tend to agree. There’s also something special about a long, slow fire, so many South Africans tend to prefer wood.
Now we get to the most important part--the things we braai. Lamb chops, steak, sosaties (kebabs), chicken pieces, and a firm South African favorite, boerewors (or wors for short). Boerewors, directly translated from Afrikaans to English, means "farmer sausage," (boere "farmer" + wors "sausage"). There are very strict rules about boerewors, because you can’t just give any sausage this name.
Wors needs to be made up of 90% minced meat, always containing beef and then mixtures of either pork or lamb, or both. They may not contain processed meat of any kind.
The meat itself may not contain more than 30% fat. You’ll know this has been ignored if your wors decide to burst into flames over the fire. We refer to this as “petrol-boerie,” and it’s not welcome at any braai.
The remaining 10% of wors needs to be made up of additional ingredients like herbs and spices. Crushed coriander seeds, cloves, black pepper, nutmeg, and allspice are all delicious options.
Besides meat, we have also been known to braai other accompaniments like vegetable sosaties, garlic bread, sweetcorn, and my personal favorite, Braai Broodtjies (grilled sandwiches). Traditionally, these are made with a strong yellow cheese, sliced tomatoes, onion, chutney, salt, and pepper, all sandwiched between two slices of white bread that have been buttered on the outside. Feel free to leave the chutney out of the mix, and replace it with a small amount of crushed garlic. Also, include a combination of mozzarella and cheddar cheese. These are fantastic served as snacks or sides!
Other sides that don’t need to be braaied include salads, some kind of potato dish, and, if you’re wanting something truly South African, Stywe Pap & Sheba. I used to eat this as a kid and absolutely love the stuff. It’s basically very fine white maize meal that’s cooked with water, salt, and butter until it’s stiff ("stywe" in Afrikaans) and then served with a warm tomato relish (known as phutu or sheba). It’s traditionally eaten along with chops or boerewors, with the stywe pap soaking up all the juices from the meat and relish. You absolutely have to use your hands!
If you are lucky enough to be invited to a braai, or decide to host your own, please take note of the following braai etiquette:
Always bring your own meat and drinks, unless the host specifically tells you not to. If this is the case, bring a bottle of wine and a packet of crisps.
If you’re not one who thinks they’d enjoy a good piece of prime, 21-day dry-aged steak, and decide to bring along a cheap piece of meat to slap on the braai, you better make sure you eat it. South Africans take their meat very seriously, so don’t be that person who brings the cheap meat and eats all the good stuff. You know who you are.
Don’t backseat braai, especially when the host of the braai is the one driving. This is one of the worst things you could possibly do at a braai. I know it’s hard, trust me, but don’t do it. Although my first verbal exchange with my future-husband, when I met him, was over the fact that I didn’t think he could braai chicken properly, so it could get you somewhere. In his defense, the person who originally had the position of Braai Master suddenly left the braai and handed him the tongs.
Don’t arrive hungry when attending a lunchtime braai, because you’ll end up eating at 5pm. You don’t arrive at a braai and eat. You arrive, get a drink, catch up with everyone there, get another drink, host lights fire, eat snacks, drink some more, eat more snacks (reminding yourself not to fill up on said snacks), salads are made, get another drink, meat is braaied, glasses topped-up, sit down together and eat…eventually.
On that note, if you’re hosting an evening braai, start the fire early. Your guests don’t want to eat at 10pm; they won’t be hungry anymore due to all the snacking, and will be very drunk due to all the drinking.
Do not under any circumstances bring something like a spatchcock chicken to a braai. Besides the copious amounts of marinade that will taint everyone else’s marinade-free meat, whoever is in charge of the braai will curse you until the end of time.
Speaking of marinade, make sure everyone is on the same page about this particular subject. I personally hate the stuff, and prefer to season my meat with things like salt, pepper, herbs, and lemon juice. If you are attending a braai hosted by someone who loves a good bottle of sauce, and you don’t, you’re going to either have to make a special request that they leave your meat alone, or just shut up and deal with it.
If you’re vegetarian and prefer to go with a delicious gourmet veggie sausage, politely decline the invitation. Just kidding. There is such a thing as a vegetarian South African, and they are always most welcome to any braai. Just make sure you have a clear understanding with the person controlling the braai about how you want them to cook your faux vleis. Remind them that it also doesn’t take an hour to braai.
Be aware of your guests’ needs. This especially pertains to the doneness of meat; just because you like your meat burnt to a cinder, the same can’t necessarily be said for your guests.
Make sure your fire isn’t too hot or too cold, as this makes a huge difference with everything. Besides how it impacts things going on the braai, it also affects the atmosphere. We might take braai very seriously, but we are very chill about them, too.
If you are braaing for a large crowd and need to cook meat in batches, make sure you keep the cooked stuff in a ceramic dish in a low warmer. This ensures that the meat remains juicy but doesn’t get ice-cold.
Leftover braai meat is actually the real breakfast of champions, hands down. Make sure you store any leftovers correctly--in a sealed dish in the fridge.