The Braai

My first night in South Africa, my host decided to treat me to a traditional South African braai. My first order of business was to figure out what exactly a braai was.

When I asked him, he said “it’s like a barbecue.” Being from the South, I thought I knew what barbecue was: smoked meat and tangy sauce. But being a man of experience and knowledge, I also knew that when someone says “a barbecue”, they almost certainly actually mean “a cookout”.

It turns out that a South African braai is in fact basically a cookout. A variety of meat is cooked on a wood or charcoal grill (we used charcoal) and eaten alongside pap (which is kind of like grits) and a type of sandwich called a braaibroodjie (I had to look up the spelling of that) which holds grilled tomatoes and onions with a slice of cheese and some chutney.

After thanking my host for the delicious meal, we talked about South African and American customs. I told him about what I mean when I say barbecue. We mused over the origin of the word.

I had similar discussions in New Zealand, where the word barbecue is used as a synonym for both grill (the noun and verb form) and cookout. The Māori do have what is called a hāngi, which is much more like a barbecue — meat is cooked over a long period of time using hot rocks buried in an earthen oven. In fact, the hāngi seems similar to what was probably the original barbecue, if Wikipedia is to be believed (yes, I didn’t do any actual research on the matter).

In all my travels, I have learned that people will never agree on the meaning of the word barbecue. But one thing that will always bring people together is cooking food, especially savory meats outdoors on a nice Summer day. Whether it’s a cookout or a barbecue or a pig pickin’ or a hāngi or a braai or yakiniku or asado…the tradition of lighting something on fire, letting it burn down low, and cooking a bunch of meat over it has spread across the world as a time of coming together to laugh, have fun, and enjoy life.

I started writing this story just to talk about the first night after arriving in South Africa, but now I’m hoping that the world turns back to normal in time for some grillin’!

2 thoughts on “The Braai

  1. I can imagine that originally the festive feeling around eating meat together over a fire was simply because meat was on the menu again after a long spell without it. But it does make people happy, whether the meat came from a successful hunt through the forest or through Kroger.

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