I’ll begin by ending your confusion: this is not a piece on the word history of rabbit food. (I’m not even sure how that would work.)
‘Bunny chow’ is not ‘rabbit food’. Apart from the name, it has nothing to do with rabbits. It doesn’t contain rabbits either – though I suppose that depends on your filling of choice! It is, however, downright delicious.
A classic South African grab-to-go speciality, a bunny chow (often more simply referred to as a ‘bunny’) is a hollowed-out section of bread loaf containing meat or vegetarian curry.
The filling is scooped up using pieces from the crusty outside while the inside soaks up juices and flavour. The remaining bread can be eaten up much like an ice-cream cone. Edible container and no washing up? Yes please!
Now enjoyed throughout the country and worldwide, bunnies are believed to have originated with the Indian community of Durban in the mid-20th century. They were supposedly created for plantation workers as a portable alternative to the vegetable dishes and roti (Indian flatbread) which they had for lunch.
They may also have been made as a takeaway option for people who were not allowed to eat in restaurants due to apartheid laws. Meat was added later, as the popularity of the dish spread.
Eating bunny chow at home. There are many pictures bunny chow being ‘plated up’, with the popular street food being served in sit-down restaurants. Image from Flickr user Amanda Wood.
There have been various suggestions for the origin of the name. The most common is that ‘bunny chow’ may come from bania, a term for a Gujarati merchant caste. This took on the general meaning of ‘Indian shopkeeper’ in South Africa – even if the individuals in question were of another social class. Presumably, the ‘chow’ (or ‘food’) sold by these people came to be known as bania chow, and later, ‘bunny chow’.
Another account tells that the dish was invented at a specific restaurant in Durban as a takeaway option for non-white customers. The owner was called Bhanya, therefore, ‘Bhanya’s chow’.
Some say that bunny chow is named after the banyan trees of Durban, under which it was first sold by street-side sellers. ‘Banyan chow’? Perhaps.
My first and only encounter with bunny chow was on this very day one year ago. Wandering through Southampton’s fairly un-Christmassy Christmas Market, I came across a stall for ‘Bunnymans Bunnychow’, and asked the obvious question of whether it contained any rabbit. The staff explained everything very enthusiastically, but probably added me to a secret below-the-counter tally of people who ask ‘the rabbit question’.
I gleefully carried off a ‘Vegi Delight’, filled with a meat-free chilli and topped with sour cream and a crunchy garlic bread slice. Incredible.