Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Bunny Chow", carrots not included

If none of you have ever eaten any South African food, you need to rectify this immediately. Despite being a pretty domesticated Alabama boy, I've had it enough times to be utterly smitten by the cuisine. I posted a recipe for bobotie a long time ago, and I frequently nosh on funeral rice when I need a tasty side. Needless to say, when you mix African natives, European colonials, and Chinese and East Indian indentured laborers in one place, you're naturally going to find some really amazing food in the culture.

Bunny chow is a name derived from several sources. Chow comes from the slang borrowed from the Chinese to describe some general foods. Bunny is a word originating from an Indian tradesman caste that immigrated to the area called Baniyas. From there it gets hazy. Depending on where you hear it, it's either the Indian street food merchants way of serving the racially segregated customers during Apartheid, or it was a day laborer takeout invention for sugarcane workers during the Great Depression, or it was a way to economically feed poor young kids. I've heard about a dozen, who knows, who cares I guess. Either way, it's stupidly good food like just about anything in South Africa. Here's how you do it:

The Bread

No surprises here, it's formulaic white bread. I've taken some of the water out of this and replaced it with buttermilk. You can use water if you want to keep this vegan. This is enough for two loaves of bunny chow. Scale down if you prefer. I like baking two loaves because its not significantly more time than one, and you can keep the other in your bread box, keep the rest of the curry in the fridge, and make another bunny chow a few days later, or for friends!

Use this:

  • 6 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 4 tsp kosher salt
  • 4 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 cup lukewarm water
  • 2 cups lukewarm buttermilk

Combine salt & flour, make a well. Combine yeast and water. Let that rest for five minutes, and stir into a uniform swill. Pour into the well, and draw flour from the sides, stirring briskly to make a paste. Cover and let rest 20 minutes to sponge.

Sponged! Add about half of your buttermilk, stir in the flour as much as you can. If the dough is dry, add more buttermilk, but be careful not to get too moist. You want it lightly tacky on your fingers.

Turn out onto work surface, knead like crazy for ten minutes, then chafe it up, grease a bowl, plop it in and cover for about 90 minutes or until doubled.

Punch down, chafe, split into two pieces with a sharp knife, and chafe into balls again. From here, you want to form into loaves and fit into greased loaf pans, but for some reason I forgot to take a picture. Use your imagination! Cover your loaf pans with a damp cloth for 45 minutes to proof.

You then want to preheat the oven to 425, and just before putting the loaves in the oven, give them a vertical slit across the top with a very sharp paring knife or scalpel. Pop those in, and spritz the side walls of the oven with a spray bottle, or whatever your choice of steam may be. I give it a spritz every five or ten minutes, but don't really keep track. Let them bake for 40-45 minutes and turn out onto a wire rack. Again no picture, I guess because I make a dozen loaves of bread a week and I just forgot about it.

Now, for the curry

Here's a crappy mise en place for sure. Some of this stuff I didn't even use, and other stuff I used but forgot to mise en place. Oh well!

No matter, here's what I used for my curry. If you have another curry you like, use it instead. It really doesn't matter. You could even take restaurant takeout curry and just pour that slop in if you're super lazy!

If you are a stickler for making it like I did, here's what I used:

  • 3 tbsp ghee (canola or olive oil if you want vegan)
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds, slightly crushed
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 3 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • About 20 curry leaves (omit if you can't find them)
  • 2 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
  • 1 tbsp grated ginger (or paste if you're lazy like me)
  • 2 tbsp dried chili flakes (or potentially much, much more!)
  • One or two big tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1 small potato, diced
  • 2 cans black beans, drained
  • 1 young-ish plantain, diced
  • About six or seven ounces of coconut milk
  • Big handful of cilantro, chopped

Start with your ghee in the pan, get it good and hot, just shy of smoking. Throw your turmeric, mustard seed, coriander, and fenugreek, and immediately turn the heat down. The spices will pop, so get ready to quickly cover for a moment. Immediately add your onion and garlic, and a teaspoon of your salt. Cook covered on low heat for about 10-15 minutes to sweat the onion.

From here, add your tomato, potato, curry leaf, ginger, and chili flakes. Ramp the heat up to boil for a minute or two, then back to a good hard simmer to break that tomato down and soften your potato somewhat. I'd say about ten minutes.

Beans beans the magical fruit. Add both cans and your garam masala. Another five minutes of covered simmer.

In goes your plantain and coconut milk. Simmer for another ten to fifteen minutes.

Should be nice and fragrant by now. Add your cilantro, then salt gently to taste. By now your curry should be quite creamy, but still with a bit of chunkiness. Take that off the heat.

If you are just an impatient baby or can't justify eating a whole bunny chow in one sitting, tide yourself over and ladle some of it over basmati rice with kala jeera, if you've got it. It's curry, silly!

This works especially good if you're just making the bunny chow a day in advance and didn't bother to make any dinner that evening. At least it worked out that way for me, since I made the ingredients the day prior.

Okay, now the fun begins!

Remember that bread? Go and get it! Measure about an inch down from the top, or about where it sort of puffs up if you made a conventional loaf like me. Carefully saw horizontally with your bread knife so that you remove the "lid" of the bread. Make your cut as even as you can.

Using a knife, carefully score the crumb of the bottom part of the bread, so that you make a rectangular outline. Then, rip out as much of the crumb as you can in big pieces. You want to create a nice little hollow. A good side note if you're a fiend for South African food like I am, these bits of the crumb can be air-staled for a day or two and used as the thickening binder if you want to make bobotie (minced meat curried casserole with fruit and egg custard on top) Since I'm vegetarian for a while, I'll use it for something equally tasty later on I'm sure!

A fitting hidey hole for curry. Also if you need to hide your wallet, keys, or uh, something. Preferably not at the same time.

If your curry is in the fridge, warm it back up however you please (I just microwaved it big whoop) and ladle it lovingly into the cavity. Let it sponge a little, and pack as much curry in there as you can fit. It'll go, don't worry.

Cover with the "lid". See, just an innocent loaf of white bread...shhhhh...

Wrap that in tin foil, and preheat oven to 350. Let it sit in there for about 15 minutes.

When it gets out, it'll be gently warm and steamy. Unwrap the foil, pop the lid, and invite your neighbors.

Under any circumstances do not use any utensils to eat this. Your utensils are the bread. You tear some of the lid, or some of the bread wall, and use that to shovel curry into your mouth. If you eat this with a fork, spoon, knife, chopsticks, or whatever just make sure you have no South Africans near you because they are going to think you're a complete fruitloop.

You should also drink a lot of beer when sharing this. If you're cool enough to have Castle or Windhoek, then that would be ideal. If not, whatever beer you please. I've always enjoyed an IPA with curry in general.

Feeds approximately six or eight people per bunny chow.

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