In search of Bunny in Lenasia
I am in the wrong place, of course. Durban would have been the place to find the real Bunny, not this Indian-mix locality adjunct to Soweto called Lenasia.
The original and authentic “beans bunny” or bunny chow was first dished up at G. C. Kapitan Vegetarian restaurant at the corner of Grey and Victoria in Durban [opened 1912, closed 1992]. The restaurant is established by an Indian of Fijian origin, Ganda Chagan Kapitan, son of Kesur Jivan Kapitan who arrived in Durban in 1887. The family established the Kapitan Balcony Hotel, famed for its sweetmeats, and later the Kapitan Vegetarian restaurant, famed for “Beans Bunny.” Both are now closed: the Balcony hotel because then owner Ratilal Ranchod joined the Divine Life Society to do community work, and G.C. Kapitan’s because the building lease finally expired and none of Kesur Jivan’s descendants wished to continue in the restaurant business.
The photograph above is by author Mrinal Hajratwala, who writes: “This image was photographed [c.1960] when my second cousin, Dalpat Kapitan and his family were at the airport, en route to a family vacation in India. … Kapitan and his family owned a restaurant in Durban, South Africa, and his father and my Great great uncle, G.C. Kapitan is credited with inventing the fava-bean version of the ‘bunny chow.’”
“Bunny Chow” is a no-fuss dish: a square loaf of bread hollowed out, filled with bean curry (chicken and meat curry fillings came later), lidded with a slice of the hollowed-out bread. Wrapped in yesterday’s newspapers, it takes no additional packaging, and no utensils–even to this day.
[The image above is from South Africa Eats by Phillippa Cheifitz.]
Stories of Bunny’s name and origin abound, all of them apocryphal. The most circulated accounts tell the following (with the last insights being far less credible than the first few):
- Bunny was an easy way of serving migrant Indian laborers working on the sugarcane plantations of Kwazulu-Natal. They were not allowed to sit inside restaurants, thanks to segregation laws–and curry-roti wasn’t an easy sort of carry-out. So, Kapitan came up with an easy way of serving them in hollowed out bread through a back window. The Bunny Chow counts among our first and most enduring forms of take-away.
- Bunny was just an easy way for the laborers (or, some say, Indian caddies at the Royal Durban Golf Course) to carry their food to the fields. Indian chapatis and rotis were hardly take-away friendly until the advent of styrofoam, plastic, and foil much, much later.
- Bunny was the cheapest food available to laborers at the time, especially because it had only sugar beans, no meat. It was cheap as well as convenient.
- Bunny’s name derives from the fact that the restaurateurs belonged to an Indian “bania” merchant community; so “bania chow” becomes “bunny chow.”
- Some say its name derives from the identity of the man cooking it: “Bhunia.” Right, that may well have been synonymous with “Bania.”
- Still others say that the Bunny’s name relates to its use of bread, or bunny + aatchar (pickle) which becomes bunnny chow. Hunh?
- The last, and to my mind zaniest explanation is that eating with one’s fingers resembles eating like a bunny, and since the Bunny takes no utensils, its consumption gets likened to rabbit-like eating behaviors. Ahem, seriously?
Whatever explanation one believes, two things seem true: first, that Bunny Chow embodies the story of segregation in South Africa, and that Bunny is hardly a classy sort of food–which means that it is better associated with a lower class of eating. And eateries.
This reminds me that I’m not only in the wrong place, but also in the wrong class and time. A few decades prior, Bunny Chow might have been a logical choice for a person of my skin-color–which would also determine my social class. Now, exploring Soweto in between consummately professional interview sessions, I realize in just what ways class can channel food choices. Common foods have to be ushered into respectable spaces for us to be able to eat them at all.
Strip malls and enclosed malls are everywhere respected commercial gathering points in South Africa, a distinct step up from the far more informal, far less regulated spaza shop micro-market sales environments. The malls often fenced-off and guarded: business interests and consumer spaces inside, hawkers and vendors outside. Inside, of course, is a commercially cultivated air of consumerist sophistication; it is the space of the brand. Brands spawn chains. Chic South African eateries like News Cafe, Spur, Nando’s, Mugg & Bean, Chicken Licken, Galito’s, and the usual fast(er) food chains set their individual scenes by variously combining an increasingly familiar set of stock practices and tactics: colorful menus and visuals; family-friendly or contemporary-stylish seating; food which is more-and-less industrially created, prepackaged, pre-made, high-sugar-high-fat, easy to produce, easy to reproduce; child-friendly cheap-plastic-toy-filled faux-global low-wage-labor commission-driven gimicky sales environments; and standardized take-them-anywhere put-them-on-anything sauces and preparations—combinations of such elements set the inevitable scene.
All in places like Moponya Mall, established by the Sowetan self-made business tycoon, Richard Maponya, or in Jabulani Mall, built by another self-made millionaire from Mpumalanga, Roux Shabangu, to which they lend a further credibility, and express the possibilities of mobility, justice, and social progress.
Yet, what strip malls lined with chain restaurants generate are what I’m starting to think of as stripped and chained forms of food: homogeneous, predictable, transferable, cookie-cutter reproducible, environmentally unsustainable, borderline unethical attitudes towards food and those who consume it, and outright under-compensation of those who dish it up, assembly-line style. If “good food” suddenly becomes accessible and affordable, it’s tragically such movements that make it possible.
Don’t get me wrong; I fill my belly at such establishments when I have to, and without complaining. But I’m increasingly convinced that we live in rapidly expanding food deserts, surviving in a mirage of plenty.
Bunny chow, however, is not to be found stripped and chained–a fact I gratefully acknowledge. One has to search to find it, neither in strip malls nor in fine restaurants (its rare gourmet incarnations notwithstanding), but in a class of ethnicized eateries all on their own. I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t why G.C. Kapitan’s finally closed shop, even after 80 years in the Bunny business: Bunny was always going to be a common food, heavy with curry. Even the dignitaries who dignify G.C. Kapitan’s in Durban come searching for its ethnic commonness.
When we do find Bunny in Lenasia, it’s in only two places. First, we see it is sold across from a bus stand market, on a stretch with a Lenasia Mall that other locals are reluctant to linger on—so we don’t stop there, except to take a quick round of the market.
We head instead to the other more upscale Lenasia Trade Route Mall, in which is a small corner eatery called “Taste Budds.” Not a chain that draws the crowds seeking safety, still tucked away in its own ethnic corner in the company of spices and with Bollywood dances flashing on nearby electronic goods store screens–but secure enough in the incandescent premises of the mall that a certain respectability rubs off.
I can’t say the Taste Budds Bunny is the best thing I’ve ever eaten. But then again, we know already the character of Bunny depends wholly on the curry within.
Besides, having found the object of our quest, there is nothing left to do but turn out of Lenasia Mall and onto Nirvana Drive.
With grateful thanks to Lukas and Mimi, who rode with us though it all, and without whom I'd never have found Bunny.