Sunday, 24 April 2016
Restaurant: Bunny Chow
By Boeing: 2366 miles
By Boris Bike: 4.2 miles
It is a well-known fact that there are more South Africans in Wimbledon and Earls Court than in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Whether those cities are predominantly English in return and it is all a result of a pioneering twinning programme dreamed up by a Victorian philanthropist I don’t know. What I do know is that it is easier to buy biltong than bisto at Wimbledon station. With such a large South African diaspora you might expect a significant contribution to London’s culinary scene, but in truth there are very few restaurants. Snacks at transport terminals seem to be the order of the day for those seeking to serve those from the land of the springbok.
Of course if the weather was better it might be very different. For in South Africa the only dining experience worth getting excited about is a braai. The recipe for a braai is simple: sun, wide skies, a group of friends, burning coals and the inhabitants of Whipsnade Safari Park gently simmering on the heat. But the concept doesn’t translate that well to a damp square metre of back garden in a London suburb and there is a bylaw forbidding the grilling of antelope in royal parks. So we enjoy their wine and, for the large part, remain ignorant of their cuisine.
But Soho is large and vibrant enough to embrace most cuisines and squeezed amongst the classic, the exotic and the trendily new-fangled is a South African concept that raises an eye brow. Bunny Chow has at its heart a very simple premise: why wash up the receptacle when the customer can eat it. It originated in the Indian communities in Durban, where workers used a hollowed out loaf of bread to carry their curries to work in the sugar plantations. As well as being a curry conduit the loaf took the place of the roti from home. Having been introduced in the 1940’s the bunny became a fast food of choice. A theory for the name is that it was invented by a café owner of the Indian caste of Banias.
The combination of curry with a fun concept is a compelling one and Bunny Chow is a welcome addition to the ‘just passing by’ dining options that Soho is stuffed to the gunnels with. Temporarily, one hopes, imprisoned by scaffolding once inside the restaurant is nothing if not colourful. The walls are clad in drift wood, like a sailor’s cabin or rum shack. On reflection there is too much of it and the shapes are too uniform for a weekend haul at Worthing, but that is the look nonetheless. Colourful murals add psychedelic colour and a large poster offers translation tips for South African slang such as ‘lekker bru.’
There are a handful of brushed wood tables for those with time to pause and consume. The counter is best described as quirky fast food. As in a Subway you have to contend with a three step ordering process. Firstly you order your bread, with gluten free and cheese options, then your contents and then your salad. I opted for chicken while the good wife plumped for the pork. Both were tasty, tangy and left a tingle on the lips. I chose a very vibrant salsa while the better half went a bit more sophisticated with a slaw. Insanely hungry, I also ordered a side order of ribs and meat balls.
The bunnies were served in a box constructed by a magician with a slight of hand. It was virtually impossible to open and once open offered negligible access to the contents. This caused much of the contents to spread across the table. A simple serviette base would have been quite adequate. Everything was very fresh and flavoursome. Bland it most certainly wasn’t. Thankfully the heat was tempered by a Castle milk stout, which was thick and velvety.
Ever a glutton for punishment I ordered a brace of chocolate bunnies for desert. These were a ludicrously filling variant of a pan au chocolat. It was like dipping a table spoon into a richer, darker jar of Nutella. We were stuffed. It was, frankly, beyond sated. And we were impressed too. I’d still rather a braai. Gnawing a caramelised Oryx horn is the very definition of bliss. But failing that a Bunny accompanied by a serenade of God Save the Queen on a vuvuzela would be just fine. Whether our own South Africans will venture beyond a transport terminus for a snack is debatable, but if they do they’ll be rewarded.