Braai: The Iconic Barbecue Of Southern Africa

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It’s pronounced like “try” – just drop the ‘t’ for a ‘b’. Bry. And perhaps more than any other national emblems – flags, anthems, currencies, languages – braai is the defining symbol of southern Africa. It’s far more than a type of cookery or simple barbecue. It’s a way of life. And chilies feature large. In marinades and dry rubs on fish, meat, and vegetables. In cooking sauces, relishes and dips – and as sprinkle or splash condiments.

Chili spiced prawns on the braai
Chili spiced prawns on the braai

Braai? Ok. The word comes from Dutch: braai + vleis. Grilled + meat. For ages, it’s just been abbreviated to braai. And like ‘barbecue’, it’s come to mean both the thing you’re cooking on and a style of cooking.

An icon for cooking in southern Africa

Many countries have foods that might be described as ‘national’, culinary icons. Foods that we link to places. Like Italy for pasta. England? Fish ‘n chips. Haggis in Scotland. Burgers? America. Belgium? French fries with mayo – and chocolates. Curries and India.

Across southern Africa there really aren’t any unequivocally nation-defining dishes. However, there is a definitive way of cooking – braai.

For sure, ‘boerewors’ (farmers’ sausage), and ‘biltong’ – (often served quite rare, it’s a spiced version of beef jerky) are deeply entrenched in the region’s cuisine. But loads of other countries have their own distinctive sausages and their own sun-dried meats. And nobody in southern Africa would describe boerewors and biltong as a national dish.

Addictively fab as it can be, you eat biltong as a snack – very often as a pre-braai appetizer. And boerewors – normally just called wors and pronounced like ‘vorse’ – is mega-popular in an American-style hot dog. Served in a bread roll with a wiggly line of mustard and a slather of tomato, onion, and chili relish, a boerie roll is happy ‘street food’. Nathan’s Famous and Sabrett’s might be great franks, but, just like wors, that doesn’t make them a national dish.

Sunshine loves a braai

The braai’s popularity really stems from all the hot, sunny days we enjoy. Outdoors under a vast blue African sky is the place to be doing it. And this passion for cooking over fire means it’s not uncommon for people to extend their love for it into a built-in braai (and chimney) in their inside dining area.

Perhaps even more than BBQ, braai is stubbornly ritualistic. Menfolk typically prepare the fire, do the cooking and stand around the braai with their buddies – clutching icy beers and brandy ‘n cokes. The often-scorching chili sauces and salsas are pridefully, competitively men’s work – ‘It’s hot, hey?!’

Salads and other side dishes are the domain of womenfolk. That’s why they’ll probably be the highlights of the day. More often than not, the same can’t be said for what gets ‘cooked’ on the braai. Sorry, boys.

It ain’t easy – either choosing what to cook or how to cook it right

Over-cooking (aka cremating) is a common braai failing. It’s always caused because the alpha-male in charge got distracted and wasn’t paying attention to the fire and what’s cooking on it. In other words, not everyone’s naturally good at this. Braai-ing might be a southern African birthright, but it takes practice.

To be really good at the braai takes a lot of practice. Ideally, you need to be taught how to get it right. Taught by someone who knows what they’re about. Who doesn’t carbonize lamb loin chops or dish up blackened steaks stiffer than a breadboard?

That would be someone who can leisurely, deliciously cook a sizeable leg of lamb, a butterflied chicken, a whole fish, or a big rack of pork ribs. Possibly at the same time. Someone who knows how to set up the fire – often using split hardwood logs – rather than charcoal or (heaven forbid to a master) those uniformly-shaped ‘briquettes’.

These people know how to marshal fire, so different parts of it run at different temperatures. To me, these braai masters are magicians of the flame. They understand fire so well. They can cook on it as if they were working with a domestic kitchen’s four-by-four array of hot plates, plus a broiler/grill and an oven.

Sadly, a lot of chaps who think they’re pretty hot with the braai are pretty bad. That’s evidenced by the number of people who wince when they’re invited to one. A braai – as an event – might be a really jolly, sociable time in the sun, but you won’t necessarily be drooling over the prospect of the food. Then again, you might. It all depends who’s the braai-master.

Ostrich medallians cooking on the braai

And then there’s the choice of what to braai. If you don’t know how to cook over fire, then you’ll be restrained – and I mean strait-jacketed – in what you choose to cook. That’s another reason for wincing when invited to a braai.

All too often, the predictably carnivorous fare will be steak, lamb chops, and wors. Ah, wors. Like so many other regional sausages – chorizo, black pudding, cabanossi, salami, bratwurst, and frankfurter – some are fab. Some aren’t and will make your dogs leave home if you offer them leftovers.

Ostrich Steaks With Spicy Marinade And Citrus Sauce
A perfect recipe for the braii. Ostrich is leaner (and healthier) than even skinless chicken – with texture and flavor much like steak.
Check out this recipe
Ostrich steaks on the fire

For people who know what they’re doing, pretty much anything can be cooked on a braai. From a whole lamb being spit-roasted for several hours, to whole sardines done searingly-hot in a few minutes.

And that means braai dishes and recipes are as prolific as your imagination wants them to be. Some are made as casseroles in pots, some get cooked in pans, and others are done over the fire’s direct heat.

Learning to love the fire

I moved from London to Johannesburg about 25 years ago. As each winter ends, I vow that this will be the year that I really get to grips with braai-ing. I’ve got a bit better at it over time. But there’s still got a long, long way to go.

So, for this post and its photos, I chose two dishes that use the braai’s most simplistic heat ‘settings’ – indirect and direct. It’s a choice that disguises my minimal braai skills.

First, indirect heat. A pan-fried starter of chili-spiced prawns cooked with stacks of sizzle on hot coals (and I mean hot) with lots of salty butter, garlic, and lemon juice.

Second, direct heat for the main course – ostrich medallions seared hot and fast over the open coals. They marinated for about thirty minutes in some soy sauce, garlic, lemon juice, and chili. They’re a favorite of mine, but thick-cut, smallish rounds of rib-eye steak would be just as good.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on May 11, 2023 to include new content.
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Braai is a South African thing…it is our national treasure like wors and biltong.