Sunday, November 12, 2006

Bunny Chow by Any Other Name

Scientists say that 80-90 percent of what we taste is due to our sense of smell – a fact that becomes abundantly clear whenever you have a cold. We know, too, that the appearance of a dish greatly effects our perception of how it will taste. This is why there are food stylists in the world and why food bloggers pay so much attention to their photographs. An article in the October 14 issue of The Economist adds some scientific veritas to the “appearance accentuates taste” argument by sharing research which finds that the champagne bottle itself has a dramatically positive effect on how people think the bubby inside will taste.

In addition to smell and appearance, I believe the name of the food or drink you are about to consume also plays a critical role in your overall gastronomic experience. This is one of the many reasons why French food has such an eternal allure (crème brûlée, anyone?) and why bunny chow by any other name would taste better.

What do you think of when you hear the term “bunny chow”? I think cute, doe-eyed bunnies and pesky, shivering Chihuahuas – and neither image makes me hungry. But, alas, “bunny chow” is the name with which a yummy South African dish is forever burdened.

The simplest way to describe bunny chow is that it is curry served inside a hollowed out loaf or roll of bread for plate- and utensil-free eating. Durban is the South African city home to the largest number of people of Indian descent, and it is here that bunny chow was born in the 1940s. One set of stories traces the origin of bunny chow to inventive Indian restaurateurs from a certain caste called Banias. According to these stories, “Banias” somehow morphed into the word “bunny” when describing the restaurants’ signature bread and curry dish, which could be served to all patrons as a take-away (take-out) meal – even black customers who weren’t allowed inside the restaurant due to apartheid laws. Another set of stories points to Indian golf-course caddies as the impetus for the invention of bunny chow. These caddies either didn’t have time to leave their courses for lunch or, due to apartheid, were not allowed to use the utensils at course restaurants. The fact that bunny chow was both a container and a meal made it the caddies’ perfect lunchtime choice.

Bunny chow is traditionally made with bean curry, as in the recipe below. Feel free to use your favorite lamb, beef or chicken curry instead. You also may want to consider inventing your own name for the dish, one that will get your families’ taste buds tingling. My working moniker is Spicy Bean Curry in a Crusty Bread Bowl. Or, maybe I should make that cari épicé d'haricot dans un bol croustillant de pain. Yep, sounds – and tastes – even better.

Bunny Chow
Adapted from From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail
Serves 4 to 6

1½ cups dried pinto beans or other small-to-medium white beans, such as cannellini beans
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon hot curry powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 tablespoons peanut or corn oil
Generous pinch ground asafetida
½ teaspoon brown mustard seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
1 medium onion, quartered lengthwise and then cut crosswise into thin slices
10-15 fresh curry leaves (optional, but highly recommended)
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons peeled and finely grated fresh ginger
1 cup peeled and finely chopped tomato
1¼ teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon garam masala
4-6 large, crusty bread rolls

Cover the beans with plenty of water and soak overnight. Drain, and place the beans in a pot along with 6½ cups of water. Bring to a boil, partially cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 2 hours or until the beans are tender. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water.

Mix together the ground cumin, ground coriander, ground turmeric, curry powder and cayenne pepper in a small bowl, and set aside.

Pour the oil into a large saucepan and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the asafetida, quickly followed by the mustards seeds, cumin seeds and fennel seeds, in that order. Swiftly add the onion and curry leaves and stir. Sauté until the onion is lightly browed. Add the garlic and ginger and stir for 10 seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until they have softened – about five minutes. Add the fresh water (not the reserved water), as well as the salt, lemon juice and garam masala. Bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce the heat to low and cook gently for fifteen minutes.

Pour the cooked beans into the saucepan and stir, adding some of the reserved water if you would like a soupier curry. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, on low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, cut the tops off of your rolls, saving them to serve alongside the rest of the roll. Using a combination of a knife and your finger, hollow-out the insides of the rolls. Traditionally, this fluffy hollowed-out bread piece would be served on top of the bunny chow, but I typically end up discarding this part of the bread (otherwise the meal is a tad too bread-heavy for me). When the curry has finished cooking, scoop spoonfuls into your bread bowls and serve hot.


Brilynn said...

That's very true.
Aside from the name, bunny chow sounds delicious!

The Culinary Chase said...

I love all the spices you use in this recipe.

feitpingvin said...

I'm going to have to try that the next time I'm in South Africa. Even though I'm not that crazy about bread..