One of the benefits of travelling is that it offers you the opportunity to really learn about and experience the local culture and traditions. One of the first things I learned when I arrived in South Africa many years ago was everything about the South African braai. I learned what it meant, how enshrined it is in local South African culture and most important of all, how to participate in one. Yes, it is more than just eating, it is a whole ritual of sorts.
Braai culture in South Africa
At first I did not really understand the fuss about it, since having a barbecue is not all that special in other parts of the world. The only difference is that in many other countries it is called having a barbecue, barbecue or bbq (what’s in a name?). How wrong I was. In fact, what I learned after being in the country for a bit longer is that it is not just like any barbecue in any other country. A South African braai is not just about the food, it is an entire institution all on its own.
What is a braai?
The word ‘braai’ originates from Afrikaans, which is derived from the Dutch language brought to South Africa by the early Dutch settlers. Afrikaans is one of the 11 official languages of South Africa. The meaning of the word braai as a noun is a structure on which a fire can be made in order to grill meat. The word braai can also be used as a verb, which means ‘to grill’. The Afrikaans word ‘braaivleis‘ or braai meat in English, means meat that is meant to be grilled on an open fire.
Even though South Africa has 11 official languages, the word braai, and the actual activity, is commonly used/performed and understood in all these languages. That shows how much the braai culture is completely ingrained into the South African way of life.
What makes a South African braai so different?
No where else in the world is a braai so integrated into a culture as in South Africa. What makes a braai in South Africa so special and different?
The Timing of a braai
One would think that because a braai is an outdoor event, it would only be organised during the warm summer months. In South Africa however, a braai can be organised for whatever occasion, in whatever kind of weather (we have braaied in the snow before. Yes, it snows in South Africa)) and no matter the time of day or week. In South Africa there is basically always a great excuse to braai, or rather, there is seldom anything that ever stops a South African from performing the art of braaing.
What makes a traditional South African braai so special is that it is as much about being together with family and good friends as it is about having the braai itself and eating. A fire is made outside, everyone gathers around it, enjoys the flames, and then smells like a good camp fire afterwards. All of this is being enjoyed as a social gathering.
Follow the Braai rules. Yes, there are rules.
A braai in South Africa is all about the rules. First of all, when you are invited to a braai you are often expected to bring your own meat and drinks, but not always. You will be advised of this before hand. In other words, it is like a ‘potluck’, or ‘bring and braai’. Then there is the braaimaster. He is the only one who starts the fire, takes care of the fire and will decide when the fire is ready to cook that perfect steak. Nobody will interfere with the braaimaster, unless asked by the braaimaster him/herself, which in most cases is a request to bring him, or her, another drink. This is the most important rule. It can also be agreed that you will be able to braai your own meat on the braaimasters fire, but only after the fire has been declared ready by him.
‘How to braai’ is important
A South African braai is made with either wood, charcoal or briquettes. It is not just about grilling a piece of meat on a hot grill. It is about getting the right smoky flavours into the meat. And it is about lighting the fire, sitting by the fire, waiting till the fire is ready. Sometimes the longer the fire takes the better. Time is hardly ever an issue. Shortcuts, like gas braais are normally not an option. When you organise a braai, you make sure there is enough time to fulfil the ritual to the end. That’s why it is important never to go hungry when you are invited to a South African braai as by the time the fire is ready, you will surely be hungry again. So have a little something before you go.
I was also pleasantly surprised to see how easy it in fact is to light a fire. I remember the first time Sean organised a braai in Belgium and lit the fire. A friend came to tell me that Sean’s fire was not going but did not want to tell him. I laughed and told him to wait half an hour. The secret is to light the fire from the inside of the wigwam of wood or pyramid of coals and let it burn slowly to the outside. Lighting the fire from the top might give instant visible flame, but it seldom lasts, and the rest of the pile of wood or coals stays dead.
It’s all about the braai meat
South Africans love their meat. And a braai is all about the meat. One item that will always be present at a braai is a good roll of boerewors (in english: farmer’s sausage). Each farm/butchery makes its own boerewors, with its own spices and flavours. And they all taste different. Most boerewors is made from beef.
Apart from the boerewors, there will also be Karoo lamb chops, pork chops or a nice large piece of steak. When I first saw the size of the steaks in South Africa I was completely surprised. I had never seen this size of steak before. They are easily 1 to 2 kg. They will be put completely intact on the braai and only cut in pieces after it has been grilled. In Belgium, we have these tiny pieces of sausage, chops or little pieces of steaks (and that’s why they are always dry and burned on the outside).
A South African braai does not aways have many side dishes, sometimes a green or potato salad. What will mostly be present is either a loaf of garlic bread or ‘braaibroodjies’, which are toasted sandwiches, grilled on the braai, with tomato, cheese, onion and chutney inside. Here is a delicious braaibroodjies recipe.
Interesting facts about the South African braai
- No other country in the world has its own public national holiday dedicated to a braai. In fact, Braai Day is organised on Heritage Day, which is the day when South Africans celebrate their culture and the diversity of their beliefs and traditions. It takes place on the 24th of September. Jan Scannell called all South Africans to have their National Braai day on Heritage day, to meet up with good friends and family, sit around the fire and commemorate their heritage together and wave the South African flag.
- Nobel Peace Price winner, archbishop Desmond Tutu is the patron of National Braai day.
- No need for a fancy and expensive grill or barbecue, a braai can be made in a variety of ‘devices’. Most braais are made with bricks. But also usable are the inside drums of a washing machine, the one half of a 300 gallon oil drum, or even just the ground, where you just used some stones to support the grill.
- A braai grill is never cleaned with special detergents. To clean the grill, just put it on the fire a half hour or so before you intend to start braaing. You can then clean the previous braai off the grill with a wire brush and a half onion. Works like a bomb. The onion juice helps to prevent the meat from sticking to the grill.
- Since a braai in South Africa is a social event, most public places have braais available. In a campsite, you will always have braai stands available, mostly each campsite will have an individual braai place as well as most self catering accommodations. And when on holiday, South Africans will braai. At a campsite, around 5 PM, you will see most occupied stands will have the fires going.
Have you ever participated in a South African braai? Did you enjoy it?
You might also like these posts about South Africa:
Traditional South African foods you need to try
Complete guide to Kruger National Park
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I agree that it’s a way of life for many. But, as a topical aside, I must admit I don’t like people calling Heritage Day (on 24 September) “National Braai Day” because it’s not everyone’s heritage after all. We have a country rich in heritage of various kinds and it should ALL be celebrated.
Hi Roxanne – find me an African, anywhere on the continent, who does not celebrate the grilling of meat on an open fire. Braai, shisa nyama, e-ba le sebete, ibrayi, etc call it what you like, this is one cultural activity in its various versions that links all Africans.
This is not to say that other cultural activities should not be celebrated but what better way than to come together for a meal on the 24th of September.
Love your in-depth explanation of the braai and all the culture and community that comes with it! And that slab of meat is INSANE. Hopefully one day I’ll get to experience this.
What a cool tradition! I’ve never heard of this one before. This is really one of the best parts of traveling…getting local experiences like this. I had to show my husband that slab of meat! OMG! Just out of curiosity since I’m a pescatarian and may make it to South Africa one day, do you know if they ever include fish in the braai?
Most South Africans love their meat, but you can basically put anything on the braai. And there is a very nice local fish which I cook regularly, it’s called Snoek. It’s such a tasty fish which goes perfectly with any South African braai.
Love learning about different cultures. One of the best things about travel is seeing how other people do things and the history behind their traditions.
A public holiday, that’s awesome! Braai sounds like my thing. I hope to make it to South Africa next year.
Oh man that looks delicious and like so much fun. Thanks for providing a meaningful look into this custom and food!
I totally agree, “Braai” is pure South African culture. Although we have a special sausage in Germany, there is nothing than a good roll of boerewors.
Wow! Such an interesting read. There are so many cultures and traditions around the world that I know nothing about – so much to explore – so much to discover ..thanks for sharing 🙂
I love this post!!!! When I visited a friend in South Africa I had no idea what braai meant but loved long evenings meeting new friends and eating good food. It has such a communal vibe and puts the UK barbie to shame.
I did not know half of this information so thank you for such an informative post.
Hey, Emma. I know this is a little late to the party, but being a home grown South African, reared on braaivleis, biltong, and potjiekos, I though it worth adding a bit about the braai.
Sabine does a good job explaining what the braai is, but I think she understated how important and integral the communal aspect of it is. Though I don’t think it would be technically incorrect to say you had a braai if you prepared some meat on the fire alone, I can’t think of a single person I know that would call that a braai.
Whilst, yes, the word does describe the cooking method, it is actually much more accurate to say it is a description of a social event that includes making food over a fire. Evidenced by the fact that, if you had a six hour gathering, with a braai and dinner at the end, people would not describe the last 2 hours spent actually making the food as the braai, but the whole event.
You can’t really call preparing meat on the fire on your own a braai, but, in contrast, you could make just a single bit of sausage on a tiny fire as an accompaniment to the meal, and I don’t think anyone would blink at calling it a braai.
Yes the fire and meat should be present, but the core of the braai is really the getting together and spending quality time with one another. The best braai is the one you have out in the bush, in the middle of nowhere, with wood scavanged from around the campsite, with the flames just starting to lick above the wood as the sun slips beneath the horizon, a cool beer in your hand, and — most crucially — a horde of friends and family around you.
At least among my people — Boere, a distinct subset of Afrikaners — the braai (as in the food cooking) is central to a social gathering more so because of the social atmosphere that it fosters than for the food itself. The braai is the best way to express a deeper cultural belief amongst my people: a good host feeds his visitors.
You’d be hard pressed to visit a Boer home without being given something to eat. If it’s around meal time, you’re almost certain to be invited to join them at the table, if its between meal times, you’ll be offered light snacks with refreshments, usually of the savoury kind rather than the sweet, and in far greater quantities than if it were just to have something to chew on.
Food is seen as a way to ease good conversation and make people feel at home. I think you can appreciate, then, how a cosy fire, which in the wilderness would also serve as your source of heat and light, and the place on which you cook your food, would so naturally be a great way to express that sense of care and hospitality. The braai grew out of that idea of feeding your guests, a convenient combination of utility and hospitality that allowed it to grow into the institution it is. That’s what I believe based on my upbringing and intimate experience with the matter.
The braai spread so quickly and easily amongst the rest of the African peoples because fire is so central to their cultures as well. Most people still make thier food on fires, heat their homes with them and use them to light the night. I know for the Zulu people it is tradition to gather around the campfire and tell the old folktales, a tradition which the Xhosa kept when they split from the Zulu.
Well, that’s enough rambling from me. I hope you found some of what I wrote interesting.
Wow Gideon, I’m way too late for the braai – but you hit the nail on the head!
Very informative. The word “Braai” was bit of a tongue twister when I first arrived in South Africa and for a long time I struggled with pronunciation and spelling of this word. These type of articles can be made more appealing and meaningful to those coming across such coloqual terms for the first time, if it also could also incorporate voice recording of its pronounciation. Thanks.
Facts , I loved reading this and can’t believe it’s actually a few hours from now and reading this makes me feel so excited for my future self who’s gonna be creating memories with the people I love over some braai , drinks and songs tomorrow.