Working Class Food

I was reminded of this the other day.

Back in Sith Efrika, city streets are full of little snack bars, fish ‘n chip shops and cafés (called “caffies” by the locals, and these places bear absolutely no relation to the French establishment).  All serve the usual stuff:  hot dogs (“horrogs”), burgers, and of course fish ‘n chips.

Most of them, especially in working-class areas, serve something else.  It’s called (inexplicably) “bunny chow”, and it’s the simplest of all dishes:  a half-loaf of regular white- or brown bread, hollowed out and filled with either chicken/beef/lamb curry, or else beef/mutton stew.  It’s a budget-prized take on the “soup-in-a-French-boule” thing beloved of snooty Californian and Midwestern restaurants.

Here are a couple pics of bunny chow, to give you an idea:


You can eat it with your bare hands:  scoop the top part out with your fingers until there’s enough crust to break off and use as a scoop;  or if you’re feeling flush, order a side of fries and use those in twos as your delivery device.  (I said  it was a working-class food.)  Or, if you’re squeamish, use a fork for the stew, and when it’s all gone, eat the saturated bread up afterwards.  Either way, you have to eat it quickly or else the loaf will collapse — literally, it’s a portable meal to be eaten on the run.

You can go upscale with it:

…but that’s like putting caviar on a hot dog.  “Bunny chow” means cheap bread, cheap meat, a cheap meal.

Served properly, it’s delicious.  Sadly, bunny chow is often used for yesterday’s leftover stew (not that there’s anything wrong with that) or else last week’s  leftover stew (not so good).  Rule of thumb:  never order bunny chow early on a Monday morning.

When I was a starving student back in the early 1970s, I lived on bunny chow.  There was a greasy snack bar just around the corner from campus which served both curried chicken or -lamb chow, but you had to be careful eating either because there were often pieces of bone left in the stew — let’s just say that the food prep tended towards the hasty side in these establishments.

Later, as a starving musician, my tastes had become more sophisticated, and I’d moved on to shawarmas, that spicy and tasty Mediterranean dish of lamb, chicken or beef carved off a rotating vertical skewer:and served inside a soft, thin pita-bread pocket.

After almost every gig, I’d head off to Paradise Foods in Hillbrow (greasy spoons, greasy floor, greasy walls  FFS), get two shawarmas (meat and sauce only, none of that veg crap), and somehow I’d manage to eat both of them on the run before I got back to my car.  Man, it was a highlight of the week.

But if I was on the road to or from a gig and feeling hungry, there was always a roadside “caffie” somewhere to sell me bunny chow.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the kitchen.


  1. Damn, that looks so good. Unfortunately, there aren’t really any good butcher shops around here to get mutton. Pork or chicken will have to suffice. Still, that’s not bad. I’ll have to whip up some curry and see what trouble I can get into in the kitchen this week.

  2. I love eating weird stuff from small working class operations. Occasionally I suffer intestinal catastrophe from such things as Mexican street food, but really, given their bad reputation, not much.

    Always look for a line-up or crowd of locals. Last year I found such a line at a little taco stand where the guy and his wife made BBQ pork tacos, then fried them crispy on a griddle. Wow.

    If you liked shawarmas, have you tried tacos al pastor, the shawarma as adopted by Mexicans from Lebanese immigrants? pretty good too.

  3. I loved hitting the food carts outside the front gates of Osan AB (Korea) for yaki mandu (deep fried, I never asked, wrapped up in paper to eat while strolling back to quarters).

    The paper they used was part of the adventure. They used whatever paper was available including stuff from the base. One guy found his was wrapped up in a page from a classified technical order for the F-15.

    Question: what is the actual difference between shawarmas and gyros? Point of origin? Spices? Same thing with different names?

  4. Yeah, shwarma – when I was in Saudi I’d get ’em off the street for the equivalent of $0.30 each. My fav place outside the hotel carved them off a 6-foot high meat roll – guy started off standing on a ladder to make the cut. Mine with just meat and tomato. (I were getting $140/day per diem for food, heh, heh, heh, and life was very good)

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