Breaking bread & boerewors: how food brings South Africans together

Food writers share stories of people of different cultures bonding through their shared love of amasi, boerie rolls and bunny chows

16 September 2018 - 00:00 By Hilary Biller, Jennifer Platt and Ming-Cheau Lin

It's a simple, thick and deliciously creamy fermented dairy product with an intense sour taste, and the humbleness of the ingredient belies the contribution it has made to SA's culinary heritage.
Curiously, it's also one of those anomalies where, commercially, it's packaged under different names (amasi or maas and buttermilk) and, standing side by side in supermarket fridges, sold at different prices (amasi is cheaper).
"Amasi" is the Zulu name for cow's milk naturally fermented in a calabash. It's easily done in warmer climes, where cow's milk will sour and coagulate in just two days. A favourite way to eat it is poured over pap, or it can be enjoyed as a drink or used in cooking and baking. It is said that milk fermented this way is more easily digested than unfermented milk.
On hot days - of which there are many in Durban, where I grew up - my mother would regale us with mouthwatering tales of the homemade ice-cold maas, as she called it, that she enjoyed as a child.
Looking back, I feel sure she was referring to what is described as "traditional buttermilk", a byproduct of the liquid left behind after churning butter from cream. That is unlike the commercial amasi or buttermilk, which is a very different beast - it's milk fermented using a culture and is known as "cultured buttermilk", the variety we find in stores.
My favourite amasi story took place in Nelson Mandela's kitchen in Houghton in 2002, with his cook, Xoliswa Ndoyiya.
Renowned food writer Madhur Jaffrey was in town, researching recipes for her new curry cookbook. Through Mandela's friend Amina Cachalia, Jaffrey had organised a group of Indian ladies to prepare a South African biryani and a crab curry - among Madiba's favourite dishes.
In one corner, Ndoyiya stood over a large pot stirring Madiba's special umngqusho for Jaffrey, adding onion, garlic, tomatoes and chillies to the mielie and bean mix.
The kitchen, a hive of activity, was a heady mix of enticing, spicy aromas. Jaffrey, notebook in hand, stopped when a copious amount of maas was poured over the biryani meat.
"What's that?" she asked.
"Maas," everyone said in unison.
Ndoyiya explained how she made maas for drinking by leaving milk to sour in a warm place. The Indian cooks said it was essential to a good biryani as it tenderised and flavoured the meat.
At that moment the kitchen door swung open and in walked a very tall Mandela, who moved around the kitchen casually lifting the lids of all the pots, soaking up the mouthwatering aromas, saying they were making him hungry.
"It's lunch time ladies. Join me in the garden for this special meal," he said. And we did.
• Hilary Biller is the food editor of the Sunday Times.
It was quite apparent that we were different. Growing up in Bloemfontein from the early 1990s as Taiwanese immigrants wasn't exactly the smoothest childhood, even as a privileged middle-class family. We are a minority and stood out, even if we didn't intend to, from our skin tone, facial features and language to our culture, our beliefs and, of course, our food.
We'd make trips to the stores as a family. These trips were a fun treat for me, especially the grocery shopping. I loved browsing the aisles, discovering produce and products, and reading labels as an exercise while learning the English language. If I behaved badly, my parents would say to me "no Pick 'n Pay, no Hyperama" - an awful punishment.
"We need to spend less" - this phrase was uttered every time my parents had to pay for anything, and became a motto for every spending mission. One of the ways my parents tried to save was through bulk buying when there was a special.
I remember the outings took up the entire morning, and after walking around for a few hours and not eating in the store, we'd walk out with our trolley and there it was: that scent of boerewors grilling on the braai - the char of the beef and fat, hints of coriander seed and nutmeg. Along with the sausage was the sweet and fragrant caramelised onion.
The smell is captivating and you find yourself unconsciously drifting towards the boerewors stall to place an order that never takes longer than five minutes before you burn your tongue on the juices inside the sausage casing.
Even though the point of wholesale was to save, it was an important part of the routine to get one of these to satisfy our grumbling stomachs.
"Yes, with onions, tomato sauce and mustard please," even though in the back of my mind, I knew I'd end up suckling on my T-shirt on the ride home since I always seemed to mess on myself. I still do.
I always offered to be the one to order. I loved hanging out by the stall while waiting, watching the vendors flip the sausages effortlessly, and I'd gawk in amazement when a spot of fat caught fire - foodie fireworks.
There we were, black, white, coloured and Asian, flocking around the boerewors stall, smiling, swapping a comment or two about how amazing it smells while we drool and wait. I felt the connection and the warmth. I felt like I belonged and that I, too, was a South African.
Today, I'm 30 years old, living and working in Cape Town as a food writer ... and I still feel that connection and warmth, and I reminisce over this memory while my husband and I wait for our boerewors rolls when we leave after the occasional trip to Makro.
And, yes, with onions, tomato sauce and mustard please.
• Ming-Cheau Lin is the author of 'Just Add Rice - Stories and recipes by a Taiwanese South African' (Quivertree).
We were laaities. Pre-teens. That wonderful sepia-coloured time just before you looked at boys in a different way. We were all friends - boys, girls, it didn't matter.
We were good kids and bunked school only when we knew we wouldn't get in trouble - especially during those chalkdowns in the 1990s. We always had a plan - to watch the latest movie that someone had on VHS. So we trekked to that person's house, hunched over by school cases filled with heavy textbooks that wouldn't be opened that day.
But first we needed food. There was really no choice when we were that young and that hungry. We called it "biff". We would pool the little pocket money we had. We were not rich, but neither were we poor. As children we could afford a few loaves of bread, chips, polony and atchaar. Or mutton curry. Or mince curry. Or viennas - the halaal ones were pink and spicy.
We would go to one of the many cafés in Bosmont, our small town in the western part of Johannesburg, and order. They always had specials for us school kids. We were their best customers.
Then we would divide the loaves into quarters. Scoop out the centre part of the bread with our fingers, fill the hole with whatever we bought and stuff the scooped-out piece back in again. Wash down with Fanta Orange.
Those were probably the best meals of my life. Sitting around with my best friends, laughing and kidding around as we stuffed our faces with double carbs.
That's the beauty of the bunny chow. All it takes is a quarter loaf of bread and life is good. People say that for the best ones you have to go to Durban, but I've eaten delicious ones in Cape Town, Kimberley, Vrede, Randburg, Soweto ...
Some places call them "scambane" or "kota" (quarter), but they all taste more or less the same and every time I bite into one, it brings back those golden memories of childhood.

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