Justin Bonello: Braaing is Wired into Our DNA

Thursday, September 17th, 2015
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Photo courtesy Cooked in Africa Films

South Africans are outdoor people – with windows open to let in fresh air even when it’s freezing, an absence of fly screens and always a stoep (porch) to sit on. Braaing — cooking food outdoors over a fire — is the most racially colour-blind and mutual of South African pursuits, an even greater unifier than sport.
In plain English, braaing matters deeply to South Africans…so much so that it’s the same word in all 11 official languages. Braaing is not just a method of cooking; it’s almost like a religion…and I wanted to understand that better. So I went to Justin Bonello –South Africa’s most recognised face of braaing and general outdoors road tripping and adventuring with mates — who delivers the experience in gorgeous HD television format. It’s the kind of TV viewing that makes you want to ditch all your commitments and hit the road.

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Photo courtesy Cooked in Africa Films

Justin is an outdoor bush cook who started his TV career with Cooked, which was essentially a filmed version of how he cooked when road tripping through the South African bush with his mates. It was just different enough, fresh enough and South African enough to appeal to the BBC, and that first pilot of Cooked led to a series, a slew of other TV series about cooking and Africa, cookbooks (9) and most recently Ultimate Braai Master, “the world’s toughest outdoor cooking competition” and TV series, which has just been picked up in the USA, South America, and a number of European countries.

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Ultimate Braai Master is a travelogue/cooking competition/road-trip/love poem to wild and remote South Africa. With the fourth season about to launch on 20 September in South Africa, we can expect more incredible raw bush and coastline, hectic braai challenges and heart warming camaraderie. As Justin says: “it pushes the boundary of what can be prepared on a fire.”

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Photo courtesy Cooked in Africa Films

“Fire is wired into our DNA,” says Justin. “We started our journey around a fire; and it’s responsible for man’s evolution and the food that we eat today. It kept us safe by keeping big animals away and allowed us to access other sorts of food that needed to be cooked. From outdoor cooking, we moved into kitchens and then restaurants. But we were hunter gatherers for much longer than we were urban. All we want, really, is a place where we can get together…and, fire is that place.”
“Braaing is unique in South Africa because of the country’s 350-year history: we’ve had 350 years to hone the skill of cooking over fire. When the first Europeans arrived here, they knew more about the moon than this land. At the time, there were lions, leopards, elephants and plenty of other wild game right here in Mitchell’s Plain (Cape Town’s adjacent flats) and the nearby mountains. It was utopia for the colonists. All roads out of Cape Town were the original game trails created by the indigenous people who lived here. The South African psyche is very much tied into these first trips into the interior. This is where the braai spirit started. It’s also where European Dutch ovens became potjies, and were adapted by all South Africans as pots for cooking over fire.”

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Photo courtesy Cooked in Africa Films
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Photo courtesy Cooked in Africa Films

What is different about braaing from barbequing? As for the cooking method, braaing is short and fast while barbequing is long and slow, says Justin. And, while many South Africans swear that you can’t braai on gas, Justin is a recent convert: IF, and that’s a big IF, it’s done properly. (He also said that he would get a lot of flak about this). The two distinct flavour components of a braai, he says, come from the fat dripping on the coals and the smoke from the fire, and if you can put these back into a gas braai, then why not, as it’s certainly more convenient: “Nine minutes for a sirloin steak on a gas braai, start to finish, including resting, vs. two hours on a fire. But, there’s a time and a place for both. Often at home, I cook on a gas braai and have a fire for the kuier.”

So what is to kuier? It is the deeper, more spiritually unique aspect of braaing: the difficult to literally translate Afrikaans word for “the coming together of friends and family shared around a fire.” (And, I can add to Justin’s definition that drinking is also involved, at least at every braai I’ve ever been to.)

Kuiering is one of the things I love most about South Africa, a place where meals are relaxed and no one is in a hurry to get to the next appointment — you know when you’re invited to a braai to block out the rest of the day.

And, it’s what you see on Ultimate Braai Master, and yes, I know it’s only a TV show, and a competition show at that, but it often makes me weepy. Why? As Justin says:  “There are more important things about food than knowing how to make something. The most amazing thing happens when people from all different races and locations in a place with the polarised history of South Africa come together to go on a road trip. Last year, we had two girls from Soweto who had never really known white people…now they have white friends for life. This trip was life changing for them, as it is for every contestant.

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Photo courtesy Cooked in Africa Films

It’s a big operation, Ultimate Braai Masters: the upcoming season involves 13 teams of two contestants each, two months, 7,000 kilometres (almost 4,500 miles), 18,000 meals (three meals a day for 100 crew, hosts and contestants), about 100 tons of wood and “a hell of a lot of brandy and Coke.” It’s about coming into small towns, taking over and relying on their hospitality. Travelling on dirt roads and pitching tents in remote areas. And it’s all of this road tripping which inspired his latest book, called … Roadtripping. It’s a gorgeous how-to live, how-to-have fun-and-how-to-eat-well-while-on-the-road book, compiled by Justin and his writing collaborator Helena Lombard, with content from Justin, his crew, chef co-judges Bertus Basson and Petrus Madutlela, and his contestants. A departure from his other books, “it’s more about people, travel and the things we do that keep us sane on the road.” With playlists and games, as well as recipes like Lamb Sosaties (kebabs), Stuffed Mascarpone Potatoes cooked over coals, African snoek (a local fish) and eggs, and Braaied Brandy Banana Splits.

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Photo courtey Cooked in Africa Films

I feel a braai coming on. But before I go, here are several other interesting facts about Justin…
• While he is on the road six months of the year and is happiest when there is no connectivity, Cape Town is home. He wouldn’t live in any other city.
• He is deeply concerned about food sustainability, farmers and the food we are eating, and is well-educated on the subject. Click here to hear his thoughts on these issues, as presented at TedX Sea Point.
• He believes the recent wave of artisanal bakers, craft brewers, butchers, etc. in South Africa and the world at large is about connections – people want connections with their food and with other people.
• His favourite movie is Ratatouille.

Ultimate Braai Master Season Four starts in South Africa on 20 September on eTV.

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Written by Ilana Sharlin Stone

I’m a food writer, blogger and former chef who found her umami in Cape Town, South Africa.

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