Where to find Durban’s best curry
Words by Sarah Duff, pics by Russell Smith
It’s lunchtime on a humid Friday in summer. A cross section of the city’s inhabitants is sitting inside a panel beater’s workshop, surrounded by faded Manchester United posters. Smells of oil and petrol intermingle with a stronger aroma of spices and curry. Cops in uniform, suited businessmen and blue-collar workers are all engaged in the same thing: scoffing steaming mutton bunny chows while sweating profusely and downing two-litre Cokes.
This is Gounden’s, a legendary institution that’s been serving Durban’s favourite bunnies for more than a decade. Behind the stove is Mrs Gounden, who cooks up the famous mutton bunnies six days a week, serving up to 900 of them on a busy day. Her secret to curry success? A home-made spice mix of chilli, turmeric, pepper, coriander and cumin. It was the first stop on a quest with photographer Russell Smith to find Durban’s best curry. Armed with a high tolerance to chilli (and Rennie antacid tablets), we were guided by the suggestions of locals, who are fiercely proud of their curries and vociferous about their favourite spots. Our mission took us across the city and along its outskirts, and included visits to a lotus-shaped temple, a 24-hour takeaway frequented by models and policemen, and promenade stalls selling the sweet, masala-dusted pineapple wedges at sunset.
The dish around which we based our search was the bunny chow, the king of Durban curries. Cheap and filling, this street food has earned its place as a national dish. It’s made from a quarter-or half-loaf of white bread, which is hollowed-out and filled with curry. Using the scooped-out bread as a spoon, it’s usually eaten accompanied by an ice-cold Coca-Cola, a necessity to combat the fiery combination of curry heat and the humid climate (the combo is fondly known as a bunny and a wash-down).
Just about every Indian restaurant has some version of the bunny: they’re round and massive and come with an ocean view at Impulse by the Sea, in miniature form at House of Curries, stuffed with trotters and tripe at Britannia Hotel’s Capsicum Restaurant, and vegetarian friendly with paneer (cottage cheese) at Little Gujarat. Still, the clear favourite is mutton, and most Durbanites vote for Gounden’s hearty and spicy bunny, loaded with thick chunks of meat.
There are as many legends about the bunny’s origin as there are masalas. The uniquely South African dish is said to be named after banias, traders from the Indian state of Gujarat who emigrated to Durban, and ‘chow’, the slang word for food. Some claim it was invented for Indian golf caddies who ate lunch on the course, while another theory has it that Indian labourers on sugar-cane farms used hollowed-out bread as lunchboxes for curry leftovers. Each bunny we ate was accompanied by yet another theory.
Our bunny investigations led us to the canteen-style Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshment Room in downtown Durban, where 500 meat-free bunnies are served daily. The original owner, Ranchod Rama Patel, opened the restaurant nearly 100 years ago, and the story goes that he invented the bunny chow as a takeaway for poor patrons who had no bowls. Manager Affie Moodley, who has worked at the restaurant for 30 years, was pretty certain of this. ‘We take pride in our work,’ he proclaimed as he dished out my mixed veg and broad bean bunny with a scoop of extra curry. ‘This food comes from our hearts.’
It’s easy to see why this restaurant has been going for so long, and is still so popular. At R12 a bunny you may not expect to taste a lot of cooking love, but my bunny was scrumptious – subtly spiced, not oily and full of veg. Whether this is indeed the birthplace of the bunny is up for debate, but it’s certainly a great spot for affordable, tasty food.
At the end of the week, we’d eaten our bodyweight in curry and it was near impossible to choose the best. The task was as daunting as tackling a super-sized lamb vindaloo without a soothing glass of milk. Each place we’d visited had its highlight, whether it was a melt-in-the-mouth mutton paneer, a fresh, soft and tearable bunny loaf, or particularly piquant mango atchar. Most of the restaurants had been around for decades, were family-owned, had generations-old recipes and dishes with personal histories and bucketloads of character.
Instead of being exclusive, I’ve drawn up a list of a dozen places that encompass the best bunnies in town, as well as the tastiest rotis, briyanis (fragrant rice dishes made with vegetables or meat) and dosas. Each forms part of a fantastically rich culinary tradition that’s developed over 150 years and is as much a part of South African national identity as braais and boerewors.
WHERE TO STAY IN DURBAN
THE CONCIERGE BOUTIQUE BUNGALOWS
The Concierge Boutique Bungalows is arguably Durban’s hippest place to stay. The 12 colour-themed rooms have designer furniture and incredibly comfortable beds and using the shower was like being under a waterfall. I loved the quirky sausage dog theme throughout the hotel, as well as extra touches such as the stylish African-print dressing gowns and free Wi-Fi. Centrally located, the Concierge is a short walk from all the action on trendy Florida Road and a 10-minute drive from the beach, yet it’s off any main roads so the rooms are quiet. Breakfast is served at the Freedom Café, housed in brightly painted converted shipping containers and includes unusual dishes such as creamed rice with vanilla and peaches, or bacon-and-egg rosti. B&B costs from R850 a person sharing.
Tel 031-309-4453, email [email protected], www.the-concierge.co.za.
If you want to be right in the thick of it, stay at the Benjamin, a few steps away from the bars and restaurants of Florida Road. Housed in an historic Victorian building, it has 43 rooms, but retains the sense of a small and personal B&B, with helpful, friendly staff and a cosy, quiet lounge. Rooms are airy and simply decorated in an English country style, and there’s a sunny courtyard with a swimming pool, which is heaven on humid days. B&B costs from R890 a person a double room a night.
Tel 031-303-4233, email [email protected], www.benjamin.co.za.
Source: Getaway Magazine