Photographs by Russel Wasserfall
It’s 11am and already Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshment Centre is bristling with customers. The window is stacked with sweetmeats in cellophane wrappers: ladoo, chana magash, gulab jumbo. Outside, meters are ticking in the queue of Clive’s Taxis; inside, the atmosphere is calm. Housewives purchase snacks by the kilo, tweaking the ratio of dried peas, peanuts and spicy vermicelli crisps to precisely their liking, negotiating quantity and price until they’re happy.
Under a sun-bleached billboard – featuring a man with a 70s haircut and the pay-off line ‘Have a Coke and a smile’ – sits a smooth-talking gentleman who keeps referring to me as ‘his future wife’. He smiles broadly and invites me to join him in sharing a bunny. Bunny chow – no reference to Hefner, Thumper or leafy greens – is standard-issue white bread hollowed out and filled with Durban-recipe curry.
It’s a culinary invention this port city can claim entirely as its own, and my visit to the Zulu Kingdom would not be complete without a bunny-chow fix. Local contacts make clear-cut recommendations: Mutton? Gounden’s. Vegetarian? Patel’s. Naturally there are some discoveries along the way.
Patel’s is situated on the historic stretch previously known as Grey Street. Behind façades reflecting 1920s Indian architecture, the politicised ‘Grey Street Writers’ once honed their craft. At around the same time, boxing champion Kid Sathamoney was on the scene and Pompie Naidoo hosted international jazz acts performing for multi-racial audiences at the Goodwill Lounge. Hedonism and intellectualism merged in simmering insubordination to the apartheid regime – Durban’s answer to Sophiatown or District Six.
‘Yes, those were exciting times,’ says Mahendra Kapitan. ‘All the protests and civil disobedience…’ His grandfather, Ganda, opened GC Kapitan Vegetarian Restaurant at 154 Grey Street in 1912 – most commonly cited as the venue where ‘penny beans and bread’ turned into the take-away ‘beans bunny’. Mahendra continues: ‘When Gandhi was a young lawyer, his Offices of Indian Opinion was just opposite our shop.’ When GC Kapitan closed in 1992 it had seen the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and freedom fighter and SACP leader Yusuf Dadoo as patrons.
Patel’s has been in business for more than 90 years. It’s run by Manillar and Parboo and was started by their father, Ranchod Rama, who still looks on from a plastic-covered portrait alongside the gods Lakshmi (for prosperity) and Hanuman (for courage), and a poster outlining the Basic Conditions of Employment Act from 1983. Alfie Moodly, the manager, takes a pride in Patel’s as if it was his own.
Bunnies cross the counter on green-rimmed Colman camping plates, miniature plastic packets of pickles on the side. Alfie guides me through the curry-filled bains-marie that resemble a painter’s palette in brick reds and mustard-seed yellows. Sugar bean, china pea (or moongh) dahl, green lentil and my choice, broad bean – ‘You might call them butter beans,’ says Alfie. This is well practised cooking not easily recreated at home.
The eating is a hands-only affair; after a day of cutlery-free bunny hunting, my fingertips are tinged with turmeric. Fluffy loaf insides are placed on top and once this piece has mopped up the sauce, the art of working around the edge, tearing off the side to gather up curry begins. The knack is to maintain a crust level marginally higher than that of the curry.
Reluctantly I leave this area’s multicultural buzz for Gounden’s. The neighbourhood changes shape from roadside trestles covered with neat mounds of chillies, madumbis and green bananas to Art Deco apartment blocks and Victorian houses. I spy a group of strapping men ambling back to a construction site, carrying beer boxes of steamy newsprint parcels – a lunch order of bunnies.
Driving through suburban streets lined with banana palms and lilac-blossoming tibouchina trees makes me think of the Durban I knew as a Cape Town schoolgirl. It was a subtropical oasis, an escape from rainy winters, where tanned boys carved up warm waves in the Gunston 500. Bunnies are the ultimate fuel for surfers, and for wide boys after a night of pool, clubbing and 10 too many lagers.
This clientele causes serious dawn traffic outside Sunrise Chip ’n Ranch (open ‘from sunrise to sunrise’), for bunnies big enough to make a dent in car bonnets and blood-alcohol levels. ‘They like the chips, cheese and mutton gravy,’ says the manager. On one side of the bullet-proof glass are cigarettes and Enos, on the other a long-haired customer. ‘One of the reasons I can’t leave Durban is the bunny chow,’ he tells me. Noticing his suspiciously red-rimmed eyelids, I wonder if another reason might be the Durban Poison. If so, he’s on to a perfect antidote to The Munchies.
Across town, Gounden’s is indicated by signage for ‘Zabazaza Sheet Metal Works’ and ‘Universal Brake Specialists’. Just left through the car workshop, money changes hands for Mrs Mahaalutchmi Gounden’s deboned and on-the-bone mutton curry. There is no right or wrong – both choices yield succulent meat in a rich terracotta-coloured gravy. One is just easier to eat.
I take my place in the dim dining hall where Trace TV music videos play to no one in particular and a heavy-set bald man with gold rings in his ears and a matching glimmering tooth swaggers in. He surveys the room as if we’ve all invaded his lunchtime domain, but regulars remain unfazed.
Here I begin to understand the textural and architectural considerations of a good bunny. The softest, freshest loaves; the layered spicing – not just hollow, head-clearing chilli heat – of masala-seasoned sauce, with a complexity developed by slow simmering and just the right consistency to avoid making its surrounds soggy; and the bright crunch of sambal that’s more than garnish: grated carrot, Granny Smith apple and onion.
Everyone has their favourites. ‘We only come to The Oriental,’ says the more snappily dressed of the two suits tucking into lunch-hour quarter muttons in The Workshop shopping mall. ‘It might be more expensive, but you get what you pay for.’ As if to emphasise the added value, our waiter interrupts with, ‘Can I bring you extra sauce?’ He looks around to assess whether there’s a patron who might need him, and then adds, ‘You know, you have to have passion to do this job. I always think to myself, “How would I serve you if you were in my home?”’
Equally passionate were all those at Patel’s wanting to share their personal accounts of Ranchod Rama’s generosity. ‘Do you know that even if you didn’t have money, he would never let you leave his shop without food?’ says the smooth operator set on becoming my husband. Grey Street has been renamed Dr Yusuf Dadoo Street, but the black line through the sign on the corner seems to strike out the good history with the bad.
When I ask Manillar and Parboo Patel what will happen when they retire, they shrug. This South African institution has most likely funded their children’s education, the generation qualified as pharmacists and accountants now living in Johannesburg. Eventually Manilar answers, ‘When we get old and tired we will lock up for the last time and Patel’s will be closed.’ Here’s hoping that if this happens, Alfie will be ready to step in.
Published in the October 2011 issue of Horizons magazine.