The use of fire is one of the key tools that marked the difference between early ape men and their primate cousins. Fire also marked the start of mankind’s long march from being a common snack for predators to being the world’s most successful predator.
Not just any old fire would do. A random lightning strike, setting the long grasses smoldering in the dry season, didn’t count. But when an early man (or woman) used his/her developing brain to think about the possibility of capturing some of that fire safely, perhaps with a long branch of white stinkwood or another tree, maybe even with one end dipped in water for safer handling, and carried that fire to a communal living area – well, that was controlled fire, and control of such a valuable tool has made all the difference to African history.
Years ago four scientists – two South Africans, two Americans – confirmed that fire was first utilized on the African continent, not elsewhere. The results led them to believe that the first small, tentative technological steps that eventually led to the giant leap of lunar exploration began in southern Africa more than 1 million years ago.
Cooks in different regions of Africa have different ways of approaching braais (Afrikaans for barbecue). The people of central Africa are experts in fish braais. Farther south, desertlike portion of South Africa favors the mutton and lamb that are so abundant there. In the northeast, spit-roasted whole lamb braais are popular. On the east and west coasts, cooks wrap and grill barracuda and yellowtail in banana leaves and serve traditional accompaniments such as green mealie bread, fried plantains and fritters.
Meerlust is a wonderful place to visit when you go to the Western Cape. You will experience the winery’s braai and get in touch with the local Malay traditions. Cape Malay cuisine got its start toward the end of the 17th century, when the Dutch settlers imported Malay (Indonesian) slaves to work as carpenters, tailors, fishermen and cooks. The Malays brought with them their Eastern spices (cardamom, ginger, garlic and so on), and dishes with clever spicing – chutneys, curries, sosaties (kebabs) – are among their most enduring culinary legacies.
Dutch colonists introduced the combination of dried fruits and spices (for such preparations as Dried Apricot and Lamb Sosaties) and the French introduced the use of marinades and herbs for grilled meats and fish.
From small towns to big cities, millions of Africans are preparing to braai or grill. In fact, September 24th is “Braai Day” in South Africa. It aims to unite all South Africans and tourists by encouraging them to partake in a fun and tangible activity shared by all groups. Africans won’t easily let anything get in the way of a good braai, not even the weather. Come rain and sunshine (fortunately it’s mostly sunshine), they just love it. For us, braai is much more than just a way of cooking, it has become a way of life and it is our kind of art! The secret is not to be impatient, but to wait until a good bed of coals has formed with no tongues of flame to produce a perfect chef d’oeuvre.
Venicia Guinot (Editor-in-Chief, TROPICS Food Magazine)
Johannesburg, South Africa