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“Braai” is a word we have all come to love but what are its origins? And why is it uniquely South African? Lets see what under the coals and explore the culture behind braai.

First some history lesson in the origins of the word braai. It evolved from the word braden (Roast in Dutch) into braaivleis (Which is Afrikaans for grilled meat) and then into the verb braai which means “to grill”. The exact etymology of the word is hard to trace though because Dutch was rapidly developmening into new sister language known as Afrikaans in the 18th century but wasn’t well document because it was seen a a ‘kitchen” language still.

The word braai forms a proud part of South Africans slang and is used by people of all languages. The word can be associated with the word barbecue, although one should tread lightly when using that terms in sunny South Africa, especially near a braai. The main distinction between a braai and a barbecue, according to the average foreigner, would be the “fuel” that is used to make the fire and ultimately cook the meat.

Another popular Afrikaans variation of braai would be“chop ‘n dop” (dop being Afrikaans slang for an alcoholic drink).

The word braai in the context of braai culture, can take on many forms such as describing a social meeting; the physical apparatus(noun) in which you cook your meat; the art and process(verb) of cooking the meat over an open flame or over hot coals.

Even though the word is spelled with two a’s and one i, it sounds like “cry” but with a “br“. The word is originally from the language and culture of Afrikaans people. It is important to note however that it is a loved social norm by all cultures across Africa (especially in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia).

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A South African Braai Culture Tradition:

A braai traditionally uses wood & charcoal, whereas a barbecue uses gas and electricity. A braai is not exclusively about using wood and charcoal as gas has become more and more popular for multiple reasons. More than anything a braai means more than the fuel, the apparatus and even the actual cooking. A braai is about being South African. 

As mentioned it’s hard to trace the exact origins of the word braai. However there is some information on the art of braaing and where this practise of cooking meat over a fire originated.

The debate on when exactly humans started to control fire is unknown and still fiercely debated. What we do know is that it was sometime before modern man. Humans (homo erectus) controlled fire long before we knew how. Fossilised coal  shows strong evidence that it was man made.

Early humans figured this out because these specific coals would only burn over a certain temperature that can not be reached by a natural fire. Concluding that these fires were repeatedly fed with wood or some type of fuel.

Either way it was sometime shortly after humans took control of fire that they began to cook over the fire! As to how they realised cooking over a fire was better than eating raw meat is also unknown but we assume this happened by accident when meat mistakenly fell onto a fire and was taken off and eaten.

After this happened it was obvious why they carried on dropping meat into fire. Firstly it was easier to chew, it tasted a whole lot better, it was easily digested and it is higher in nutritional value than raw meat. If this whole debate really interests you, you can check out this article that goes into more detail here.

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History of South African Braai Culture

What makes a braai truly South African are the traditions that have become common practise in a vast majority of households in this beautiful country. It is so much more than just the cooking of food but also the gathering of friends and loved ones. The atmosphere and VIBE of the braai is what makes it such a special event for all South Africans.

A braai has no specific time or place but rather it exists everywhere and has the potential to happen at any given moment. Whether a small quick breakfast, lunch or dinner to a massive gathering of individuals from all backgrounds and walks of life everyone knows is proud of BRAAI.

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Oher factors that make a braai truly unique

Boerewors, lamb chops, T-bone steaks, chicken “flatties”, snoek, kabeljou(cob), sosaties, kebabs

Braaibrootjies, pap( traditional African staple), tomato & onion relish, chakalaka & much more.

Brandy & Coke, beer, siders and beautiful South African wine.

All of these come at different shapes, strength,flavours and other variations. Just  as every household has their own traditional way of preparing and cooking these delicious meals and drinks!

In South African there is a day that has been dedicated to the braai (It’s actually heritage day) and celebrated annually on the 24 September.

Braai is such a big part of South African heritage and tradition. It’s a day South African of all shapes, colours and sizes unite with their friends and family by a fire.

TIDBIT: There are many initiatives surrounding this day that have received endorsement. There is even an official song “Our Heritage” recorded by The Soweto Gospel Choir.

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Braai Culture Etiquette / norms

A braai can happen any where and anytime but it is usually at someones house who hosts a group of friends

The host is responsible for letting the invitees know what to bring like snacks, sides, meat, salads or alcohol

Men & woman gather around the “braai” for the entire process, from fire starting to post-cooking

Men & woman spend most of the time in kitchen socialising and preparing the sides, salads, pap, deserts and all those things that go along with the braai

MEAT is ESSENTIAL, without meat – it’s not a braai. Unless you’re a vegan/ vegetarian

The combination of the men and women’s hard work is enjoyed around the fire during conversation and story-telling

The host is usually in charge of all activities in and around the braai such as attending to the fire, cooking the meat and holding great conversation

Everything braai related usually happens on African time; it’s about the experience and the fire is usually only lit once everyone has arrived.It’s all part of the experience

Snacks are essential and especially biltong

Lastly you can crack open a beer, pour that glass of wine, grab a handful of biltong and let the braai experience begin

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Please share your thoughts and braai traditions with us, we’d love to hear and add your stories to ours. In the end its all about the community and our Braai Culture!


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