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About the author
Damian French was born in South Africa and fought in the war in Angola in the late 1980s. He has lived in London for fourteen years, working for JP Morgan, Link Asset & Securities, and now (as office manager) openDemocracy. He has an interest in all things military and is a keen photographer.
The Afrikaans word braai (pronounced as in “eye”) is often translated as – and confused with - a “barbecue”. But its meanings are far more various.

“To braai

South Africa is very definitely a country and culture of carnivores, and to braai meat over hot coals is something that comes naturally to every man (and most women) – not just those born into the Afrikaaner tradition of this multifarious land. It is the first smell you encounter on leaving the womb, it is instilled in you as a child, it is a custom you observe as a youth.

To prepare a braai, ideally the fire should be made using newspaper, tinder and a large selection of wood. Even if the braai is for your family alone, you should still make a fire large enough to be seen from adjacent homes…and then cook enough meat (vleis) to feed those neighbours.

Once the fire is roaring - singeing anyone foolhardy enough to come within ten metres - charcoal is added. The long wait that follows is filled with copious supplies of beer, brandy, and conversation. Eventually the flames settle, leaving perfect glowing coals. Now, the vleis can be added!

For a normal braai this would consist of two pieces of chicken, two lamb chops, a portion of spare ribs and half a metre of boerewors (literally farmers’ sausage) per person. After the meat has been put onto the grill it is given a healthy coating of beer (sometimes unintentionally) to add flavour. Each piece of meat is tenderly cared for during the cooking process, frequently turned and inspected as if it were a favourite child.

After about thirty minutes the cooking is complete. People can now eat…if they are still awake.

“A braai”

A braai is a social event which may involve an enormous amount of planning, even though it can be held anywhere – at home with your family, on the beach, in the forest or in a designated “braai spot”. The perfect South African weather makes it possible to arrange a braai six months in advance. However this has not stopped expatriates in London and other parts of the world attempting to stage this little bit of South Africa in their new homeland. It is not uncommon to see large numbers of South Africans in Richmond Park on a wet Saturday afternoon in November, decked out in braai clothes (Springbok rugby jersey and cap), standing around a damp fire, umbrellas covering the precious meat.

A variation of the event is a “bring and braai”, where the meat is provided by the host and guests bring along alcohol or salads (the latter mainly to provide gainful employment for the womenfolk in the kitchen). On arrival your provisions will be taken from you, and your family or group will split into three groups: the children diving into the garden or swimming pool; the women congregating in the kitchen to prepare the salads, butter the rolls, talk about shopping, knitting (or possibly their menfolk…) and look after the children (some of whom will be crying by now); the men forming a circle around the braai area to drink beer, eye the fire and talk about manly things - mainly rugby or the latest 4x4 on the market.

The huge amount of meat to be braaied allows plenty of time for the eruption of impromptu, alcohol-fuelled games of rugby (leading to more tears from the children). By the time the braaing process is complete, most of the adults are too drunk to fully appreciate its culinary intricacies, but everyone congratulates the host on his excellent braai.

“The braai”

The braai means the contraption on which the fire is made. It varies according to the braai’s size and location. In the garden at home it is normal to have a “built-in braai” made of bricks and mortar. These can be very posh, with an outside tap, refuse bin and place to rest a beer can; or simply half an oil drum with legs welded on.

Smaller “travel” versions of the braai are sold for sporting events, to allow a carpark braai outside a rugby stadium before and after the match, or inside a cricket ground during the match. In the bush, where South Africans spend a lot of recreation time, it can be made out of anything - a few bricks, a pit dug into the ground or stones collected on a beach.

The braai is such an integral part of South African culture that a Chevrolet radio advertisement once began: “Braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet…”. Everything a South African holds dear! Now all I have to work out is: why did I become vegetarian?

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