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10 Apr 2015 17:17
Posh bunny: A South African tradition gets the London treatment.
Thirteen years ago, 50 bakers in the English county of Cornwall banded together in what would surely come to be
recognised as one of the great moments in history. The year 2002 CE would be
remembered for one thing: the inception of that illustrious protector of pastry
and eschewer of garage pies, the Cornish Pasty Association.
Their raison d’être? To safeguard the pasty’s
integrity by preventing consumers being hoodwinked by inferior, impostor
pasties trading off the value of the Cornish name. The crusade to defend their culinary heritage was victorious in
2011 when the Cornish pasty was granted the same protected geographical
indication status as has been such foodstuffs as champagne and Parma ham.
It was deemed that any pasty
falsely claiming the Cornish title and comprising anything more or less than
potato, swede, onion, and diced or minced beef wrapped in pastry would be seen
to be an illegitimate perversion of the real deal.
This exemplifies the concept of
terroir, an originally oenological term that describes the regionally unique
set of environmental characteristics (such as climate, soil, methods) that are
expressed in traditional food production, and seeks to preserve the tastes and
smells of a cultural landscape for future generations.
Such things are fetishised by
fashionable foodies, but the origins of many such foods are humble.
lunch for working men in centuries past, the pasty was cheap and portable, the
crimped edge of the D-shape serving as a handle to be discarded after being
gripped by a miner’s grubby hand.
Bunny myths abound, but it is
generally agreed that the loaf-as-container probably emerged last century as a
substitute for the messily pervious roti in which Indian workers could carry
food to their workplaces in the sugar cane fields or golf courses.
The Bunny BarometerToday, the centrality of the bunny
in the gustatory life of the ordinary Durbanite is on show on every street
corner, but most ceremonially in September on the Umgeni River banks, when
scores compete for the esteemed “Bunny Barometer” title —serious business. Like
any treasured staple, the ingredients are simple and inexpensive, the
distinguishing markers of quality incredibly subtle, and the battle between
Connoisseurship in such regional
delicacies is attainable by the outsider only if they are willing to educate
more than just their palate and submit to the nuanced code of local taste. This
is more than simply a food; it is the tangible weaving together of threads of
history, cherished inherited idiosyncrasy of place and identity.
But deference to terroir is
certainly not on the table at Bunnychow, a new addition to the rainbow of
street food outlets in London’s painfully hip West End neighbourhood, Soho.
After forays into pop-up bunny vending in Brixton and Shoreditch since 2013,
they opened permanent premises late last year.
After visiting Durban, the British
chief executive of Bunnychow, Atholl Milton, “discovered” the bunny and
recognised its potential to be the next big thing in London fast food.
Garnering generally positive reviews, it seems to be doing well so far. But as
much as I was pleased to sit down to a home-inspired meal, I feel deeply
ambivalent about this enterprise.
The “Vegetable Bunny” was
undeniably tasty. The mild, chickpea and paneer curry with a cinnamon aroma on
basmati rice inside an artisanal brioche, with fresh raita and sticky mango
chutney, garnished with carrot salad and shards of
poppadom, was very reasonably priced for London at £5 (although five times what
you’d pay in Durban). But I was troubled.
Other options included the
conventional mutton “Durban Bunny” and the chicken “Chakalaka Bunny” but, being
vegetarian, these were off the menu, for me.
It’s flagrantly unorthodoxThankfully, this also saved me
having to contemplate such fusion Frankenstein monsters as the “Piri Piri Pork
Bunny” (pulled pork and Piri-piri), and the “Full English Bunny” (sausage,
black pudding, egg etcetera).
Past menu items, pulled since the
restaurant has “returned to their roots” (wait, whose roots?), have included
such abominations as the “Bunnychowder” with creamy haddock, sweetcorn and a
All are available gluten-free and
with such sides as stir fried kale. And to wash it down? Fresh juices entitled North Beach, Madiba and
Invictus. Despite explicit claims of being
South African street food, it is all flagrantly unorthodox.
movement of cuisine across borders is not in itself problematic — the purity of
national cuisines is largely mythical anyway — but the fact that the bunny can
hop on to the world food scene only after having undergone major culinary
gentrification, while retaining false claim to authenticity, really sticks in
A South African secretThere is something deeply specific
about the humbling sloppiness and earthy terracotta hues of a good Durban beans curry served in a
mass-baked white loaf. It conjures flavours that precisely complement Durban’s
salty humidity and harbour-bound truck fumes in your nostrils. These markers of
terroir are fundamental to the experience of the bunny chow.
But as the Cornish pasty is awarded
its nostalgic place in the world, the travelling bunny seems destined to become
a theme park version of itself, divorced of its origins, an edible interloper
set apart as superior to its very source. It’s imaginable, even, that the
tourist seeking authentic South African cuisine might find themselves
disappointed with the modest bunny in its natural habitat.
Bunnychow’s audacious handling of a
dish rich with, not only flavours, but inimitable ways of being, means that the
truth of the beautifully unpretentious bunny chow will, for now, remain a South African secret.
Bunnychow, 74 Wardour Street, Soho,
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