Say the word braai or shishanyama to a South African and you’ll conjure up a host of memories: the smell of lamb chops and boerewors sausage grilling over a fire, the warm sun on one’s face, the camaraderie of friends—and that one epic family argument over how to correctly stack the wood.
South Africans are very particular about the art of the “braai”—so much so that the country is about to have its fifth season of a reality show called The Ultimate Braai Master. There have also been efforts to turn South Africa’s Sept. 24 national Heritage Day into National Braai Day—24 hours of forgetting the past and uniting over a collective love of fire-grilled meat. (This feel-good move hasn’t been embraced by everyone.)
The US is gearing up for its own grill-season kickoff on Memorial Day (May 28), which is also a bank holiday in the UK. So before you dust off the grill and start browsing the latest barbecue recipes, here’s some advice from a country where grilling is practically a religion.
Ask a South African to list their assets in order of importance, and it will go: car, house, braai. And since braais are used most months of the year, and almost daily in summer, they require meticulous care. Some advise keeping the outside of a braai clean, but the inside “dirty”—that is, free of ash, but not of the black layer of debris that settles on the bottom of the grill, which can serve as a layer of protection against the elements.
Grilling racks, however, should be scrubbed down in between uses. I was taught to scrub a cold braai with either half a lemon, or an onion. You can then light the braai, let it burn for 10 minutes, and scrub it with a hard-hair brush.
Grills should be in a well-ventilated place, with something underneath them to catch splatter. You’ll also want your tools ready: Professionals recommend that a braaier have at least three tongs on hand: one for the fire, and one each for raw and cooked meat.
Ideally, there should also be a pool nearby. Not for the braai, just for fun.
In South Africa, identity politics are often front and center. But that’s not the type of identity I’m talking about. Rather, you must decide if you’re the kind of person who uses wood, charcoal, or gas for your braai. This is one of the most divisive questions you can ask a braaier, which is why the polite thing to do is not to talk about it when you get to someone’s house.
Beforehand, though? Go for it. “Wood is best, followed by charcoal,” my brother replies when asked. “Gas is not a braai.” (He’s joking… mostly.)
Whether due to nostalgia or more subjective assessments of taste, wood is the preferred heating method for many South African grills. “A wood flame adds character to the meat,” writes chef Lesego Semenya. “It smokes your meat whilst cooking it, making it taste a whole lot better, meaning you need less spices and flavourings.” Also, it’s “just more fun.” Semenya offers step-by-step instructions for piling the wood, which can be supplemented by coals and firelighters (you’re very unlikely to find lighter fluid at a South African braai.)
But there are advantages to gas as well, especially if you’re someone who likes to braai every day.
There’s no end to what you can find on a braai in South Africa, from lamb ribs, pork chops, prawns, ginger-beer-marinated chicken thighs, and sosaties (kebabs); to roosterbrood (bread specifically cooked on a braai) and well-seasoned veggies like asparagus, butternut, sweet potatoes, and mielies (corn). A well done braai is a diverse offering, and trying a few South African recipes on the grill might make your party stand out this summer.
While you’re eating your main course, why not throw on dessert? I discovered my favorite braai desert as a Girl Guide sitting around a fire in South Africa. Take an unpeeled banana, slice the peel lengthways, dot the split with chunks of chocolate, close it up, wrap in tinfoil, and leave it directly on the coals or wood for as long as it takes to melt into a divine treat.
As with their grilled meat, South Africans are huge fans of diverse side dishes. Guests will typically contribute one type of meat, one beverage, and one side dish or dessert to grilling gatherings, or as we call it, a “bring-and-braai.”
While it’s fine to get creative, “personal flair should be restricted to the type and cuts of proteins, not flavors,” warns my friend, Kenichi Serino, an American journalist who lived in South Africa for 10 years. “A braai is collaborative, not a place for outlandish personal expression. Bringing bibimap- flavored steaks to a braai is about as good idea as bring a guacamole with peas in it. No one will thank you.”
“Braai side dishes are almost as important as the meat. And everybody has a favourite, so to navigate the landscape of side dishes for the braai can be quite a nightmare,” warns the trade publication supermarket.co.za. “Firm favourites are potato salad (warm and cold), green salad, couscous and roast vegetable salad with a bit of crumbled feta, grilled sweetcorn, paptert (porridge tart), vegetable bake and pap-en-sous (porridge and sauce).”
Generally, each braai has one main person managing the grill, dictating when and in what order the meat should be put on, and when it should be turned. Like a chef in the kitchen, the braaimaster manages a team of enthusiastic, beer-drinking fellow braaiers who follow his or her lead.
“I considered myself a competent griller before attending my first braai,” my American husband told me, after I asked him to reflect on the differences between American and South African barbecues. “Grilling in America is more of a solitary experience, with less pressure. In South Africa it’s a like a serious team sport, and if you do not perform at a high level you will hear about it. I’ve been to many braais since and have yet to work up the courage to participate.”
Above all, warns Gareth Daniell, a professional braaier who goes by the moniker “Braaiboy”: “Don’t sit back and tell the person braaing how to cook the meat. If you don’t have the tongs in your hand, then keep your opinions to yourself.”
Daniell’s advice comes at the tail end of more than a dozen tips on how to be an expert braaimaster for Cape Town Magazine. But, he says, “the irony is, braaing is not actually about the food or the cooking. You can get very technical and follow this and that rule, but the most important thing is just to enjoy yourself with good friends.”