When you talk about the cuisine of South Africa, a culturally and ethnically diverse country with no less than 11 official languages, Durban curry comes up in the first breath. Maybe that's not surprising, necessarily. Durban is a mini-India, outside India; the office of the Indian Consulate in Durban confirms that the city has the highest concentration of Indians (800,000) of any city outside of India. But the Durban curry is an anomaly—loved fiercely by locals and rarely so by Indians from India, feared by those unfamiliar with the complex layers of spices, the glossy sea of orange-tinged oil that floats to the top, the flavor profile that can be described as linear and unrelenting—it burns from the moment it hits your tongue.
While the recipes and ingredients differ from family to family, broadly, Durban curry has a deep-red color indicative of the spice level (hot, hot, hot), a slick of oil, and, if it’s not a fish curry, large chunks of soft potatoes—known as "Up-To-Date" or “gravy soakers.”
How the Durban curry got here and why it manifests the way it does is a story of survival of the indentured Indians who arrived by steam ships between 1860 and 1911 to work on the British-owned sugar cane plantations. This curry tells of adaptation to the terrain and available ingredients—and it’s not short on mystery, sparking its fair share of urban legends.
This curry tells of adaptation to the terrain and available ingredients—and it’s not short on mystery, sparking its fair share of urban legends.
According to Erica Platter, the author of curry history Durban Curry So Much of Flavour, a Durban curry—the only kind named after a city—is “red hot” and complex. Unlike many of the fish curries of South India, there’s no coconut milk or fresh coconut in a Durban fish curry, nor in any other South African curry. While coconuts are prevalent in the region, they certainly weren’t abundant or available in the quantity needed for daily cooking.
While researching my book Curry: Stories & Recipes across South Africa, I had a hard time finding out what exactly the Indian indentured laborers ate in this new land. A paltry collection of sources includes a legal notice from 1874 displayed in one of the exhibition rooms in Durban’s 1860 Heritage Centre. It sets out what, amongst other things like medical treatment and “fine clothes,” the laborers sailing to South Africa’s Durban port could expect. News must have travelled home that the promises made to the newcomers (or “coolies”) were not being honored, so to entice new recruits, the notice was published. A pound of rice, some dholl (yellow split peas), dried fish, and oil were promised (though not all delivered).
Laborers escaping harsh economic and social conditions in India left through the ports of the south and soon found themselves toiling in the sugar cane plantations and railway stations, living in conditions akin to slavery. In spite of the challenges faced in this foreign land—beatings and worse for minor transgressions and an understandably strained relationship with the indigenous Zulus who refused to acquiesce to British demands—they clung onto their religions and their food culture. Perhaps they considered it a small price to pay for a different hell they left behind, as Gaiutra Bahadur ponders in her extensive historical work Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture about her great-grandmother’s arrival in Guyana and the broader context of Indian indenture.
What do you do when the records show scant evidence of written history from the perspective of the newcomers? (Most were illiterate and spoke very little English.) In the absence of primary sources, we rely on the reports of the oppressors, on oral evidence of the last living links to the past, and on a sense of imagination, posing questions as Bahadur does to great effect. The British were immaculate note-takers but lacked intimate knowledge of the Indians’ customs and eating habits.
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What we do know is that on the Durban plantations, dishes were adapted, maize split into shards to used as “mealie rice,” a rice substitute when it was scarce. Coconuts were reserved for prayers and baked goods for feasts; Indian vegetables grown from seeds stashed away in pockets and trinket boxes en route from India, sprouted in the sub-tropical soil that mimicked home to a degree. A soft or “melting” local varietal of potato made its way into curries, stretching the dishes to feed many. And what curries did the newcomers whip up? Meat was always an extravagance—even in the 70s and 80s, it was largely a once-a-week dish, if that. Popular Durban curries included (and still include) “running” or Zulu chicken (a mature free-range hen whose egg-laying days are over); mutton tenderized by marinating followed by long cooking; sheep’s head and trotters, often sold together; tripe, “sugar” beans (borlotti or cranberry); tinned fish; salted dried fish or shrimp; bitter herbs; dhal; and mixed vegetables.
And we know that Baboo Naidoo, a translator, was documented as the first Indian trader to have set up a shop for the indentured laborers to purchase some of these foods, which he did in 1861. Other passenger or “free” Indians who chose to work in South Africa also maintained close relations with the motherland, traveling often to see family and to bring back spices, seeds and vegetable matter. They set up small establishments selling spices, or traveling door-to-door supplying vegetables from local farms.
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Chandrika Harie, a third-generation trader (her grandfather arrived in the early 1900s), and the operations manager of Durban’s Spice Emporium , a sprawling upmarket spice store and Indian supermarket, says that the majority of Indians, unlike her family, became stuck in time without the ability to travel home. “We need to understand that [they] had no access or means to go back and forth. So, over time they developed their own style of cooking curry. It has its own distinct taste.”
As a result, Durban curry has tasted the same for generations, morphing slightly only in the last decade with the need to cut back on the masala, oil, and ghee used (the incidence of digestion complications, high cholesterol and diabetes is high among Indians). Despite cutting back on the richness in homes and restaurants around Durban, you can still find a few restaurants that make it in the time-honored way, such as Impulse by the Sea, Capsicum at the crumbling Britannia Hotel, CaneCutters in Glenwood, and at a Hollywood Bets in Springfield, a betting parlor (of all places).
There’s another quirk to Durban curry that also doesn’t have a complete explanation: the bunny chow to-go, a half- or quarter-loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with curry. The origins are shrouded in mystery. There are a few restaurants that could be credited with its invention: Manilal Patel, the owner of Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshment Room (which dates back to 1932), claims his father Ranchod was the first person to have made one for sale. The last owners of the original Victory Lounge (which opened in 1945 and closed in June this year), Billy and Kanagee Moodley credit an eatery called Kapitan’s; yet others Queens’s Tavern. The latter two have long closed, and with them, a part of the bunny chow’s origin story has been lost. One aspect that all writers agree upon, however, is that South Africa’s oppressive racial segregation laws under apartheid strictly prohibited the mixing of races in public spaces and the sale of food to blacks by Indians and others. Patel’s and Victory Lounge defied that, selling to everyone, even if some customers couldn’t sit down to enjoy their meals. (There’s also a possibility that the bunny chow, a convenient way to transport a meal without a container, was invented in local homes and simply copied and sold cheaply by takeout shops to laborers, golf caddies and those who couldn’t take a long lunch break.)
I ask Mr. Patel about the essence of Durban curry. “Good curry starts from the oil,” his assistant Shomal Sewnarain interjects. Mr. Patel nods. “It’s how you cook your onions, your masala. If you over-fry it will be too strong. Salt—the right amount of salt, garlic, ginger. So many things go into our curry. When people eat somewhere else, they come here and complain [about it].”
While some answers may be lost for all time, Durban curry remains locked in time and place at the cafés and tea rooms in the Old Indian Quarter, along the beachfront and in the suburban eateries, where fingers and a sense of nostalgia are all you need to enjoy it.
Ishay Govender-Ypma is a food and culture journalist, a former lawyer and author of 'Curry: Stories and Recipes across South Africa' (Human & Rousseau), released in July 2017.