BBQ bonding: How grilled meat united South Africa

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Braai is Afrikaans for grill, but has more meaning than just a style of cooking

South African cookbook author Jean Nel says braai "is our heritage, full stop."

CNN  — 

Nqobani Mlagisi grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe, where grilling, smoking and curing meats was such a part of everyday life that he didn’t really notice it was happening.

Cooking meat outdoors is one of the few shared experiences across southern Africa, a tradition that crosses the region’s racial, class and national divides.

It’s usually called a braai, which is Afrikaans for grill, but the word conjures so much more than a style of cooking.

It’s a mindset, a feeling of home and belonging, something so important that it demands a definitive article: The braai.

“The braai is part of our heritage… In fact, it is our heritage, full stop,” says Jean Nel, author of the best-selling cookbook “Braai, the Beloved Country.”

“I believe braais keep us together as a nation.”

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‘A very simple idea’

No less than Archbishop Desmond Tutu shares that belief.

He’s the patron of the National Braai Day initiative, cooked up by celebrity braaimaster Jan Scannell. The idea is to unite South Africans on their Heritage Day holiday, held September 24, by celebrating one thing that brings the nation together.

Grillmaster: Nqobani Mlgasi.

“It’s a fantastic thing, a very simple idea,” Tutu said when the initiative began in 2007. “Irrespective of your politics, of your culture, of your race, of your whatever… just South Africans doing one thing together, and recognizing that we are a fantastic nation.”

Even though it’s steeped in tradition, the braai is continually reinventing itself as South Africa becomes more urban and more connected to the rest of the world.

For Mlagisi, as a chef in downtown Johannesburg, he finds himself returning to the smells and flavors of childhood as he creates new dishes for a modern, urban clientele.

“If you look at the global cuisine when it comes to cooking traditions, you’ll notice that each continent has got a common cooking technique when it comes to meat,” he said. “The difference is the spices and the herbs that they use.”

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Burned meat

“In Africa, if you go back in time, you either had to cook the whole carcass, or the rest you had to hang in your kitchen hut where it kept cooking” over the hearth, he said.

“I grew up on a dairy farm in Zimbabwe, and I used to see all this happening but as a child I was clueless,” he said. “Now I find myself going back to my roots in smoking meat, and experimenting with different woods.”

Most of the wood chips sold commercially for smoking come from foreign trees, like oak or cherry. Mlagisi is experimenting with local woods, like pines from Mpumalanga province.

Mlagisi serves up pulled pork, brisket, and smoked sausages at the City Central Food Hall at 85 Commissioner Street, one of the newest anchors in downtown Johannesburg’s revival.

The surrounding streets host dozens of hole-in-the-wall restaurants offering what’s called buy and braai, or chesa nyama (literally burned meat), essentially a butcher where the grill is always fired up. Diners choose their raw meats, which are cooked while they wait.

That style of dining has evolved into fast-food franchises, including one called simply ChesaNyama, basically the KFC of the braai.

What’s happening at City Central is the next big evolution.

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‘Soweto street food’

Mlagisi’s braai may be inspired by his boyhood on the farm, but the flavors and techniques pull from across the world: finely chopped veggies like a salsa, Chinese bao buns.

Next door at Good to Go Eatery, the same cosmopolitan style applies to burgers. Guacamole and more complex sauces go on the meats between the buns.

“We put more style in it,” says owner Sylvester Mthembu. “We call it our Soweto street food. We just upgraded it.”

Mlagisi's menu: Different flavors.

Mthembu doesn’t see his food as a new way of braai-ing, but a new way of serving bunny chows, the Indian South African takeaway dish. Those half-loaves of bread filled with curry are still popular – they’re for sale three feet away. It’s the sudden openness to new food experiences around a braai that’s striking.

“Braai is definitely changing as nowadays there are so many different techniques, as opposed to a piece of wors and lamb chop,” says Nel, pointing to South Africa’s recent interest in South American cuisines.

“But also, we see a lot of street food, quick braai-ing – from the Japanese yakitori to Thai food to gourmet boerewors stands. And it’s healthy.”