Edible ubuntu: The history of the kota - a beloved, carb-loaded and uniquely South African street food

In partnership with City Press.

by: Anna Trapido | 03 Sep 2017
 

(image: Soweto Kota Festival Facebook page)

Why did the kota cross the road? To be squashed flat into a biff. To share lunch with a friend. And to circumvent apartheid in the hospitality industry. Why did the kota stay on the other side? Because it tastes better there…

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sandwich as “an item of food consisting of two pieces of bread with a filling between them”. In so doing it fails to fully recognise South Africa’s distinctive genre of street sandwiches in which a hollowed-out loaf serves as a portable, edible container for everything and anything from bean curries and masala steak to polony, slaptjips, Russian sausages and fried eggs. Sometimes mashed potato is packed into these suitcase-style sandwiches too. Whatever the filling, all such sarnies come in quarter, half and full loaf variations. Whether you call this cheap, filling and delicious street food a bunny chow, a kota, a sphatlo or an iskhambhani is an indicator of ethnicity and geographical location, but they are all proudly South African.

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The most famous of such sandwiches is the bunny chow. This white bread case filled with curry was first cooked up in early 20th century Durban by South Africans of Indian origin who belonged to the Bania (Gujerati trader) caste. It is only a hop, skip and a jump from Bania to bunny – especially if you are a Zulu dock worker discovering Asian eThekweni food and class nomenclature for the first time.

There are two versions of where and why the Bania invented bunnies. Some say that it was created at Patels (founded in 1915 and still sending out bunny chows in Dr Yusuf Dadoo Street, Durban) as a way of serving take-away curry to African customers who were precluded first by colonial convention and later by apartheid legislation from eating inside Indian-owned restaurants. Rice runs and roti leak but a ‘government loaf’ has the strength to act as a consumable carry container. Eat outside – just not on a park bench designated for whites only. Others argue that the bunny chow was created as staff lunch at the Durban Country Club where Indian caddies were prohibited from using the plates that the white members ate off. It matters not whether Patels or the DCC did it first. Both stories centre on racial exclusion in the hospitality industry.

What began as vile necessity has evolved into delicious preference. Who can resist the searingly hot Durban-style curry gravy as it slowly soaks into the walls of the bread? Far from being rice’s poor relation, the white bread adds a rounding, satisfyingly soothing, uniquely South African extra element. Add a few batons of carrot pickle and heaven awaits.

Apartheid in the hospitality industry, and the requirement for cheap, portable, filling food, was not unique to Durban. The bunny has a range of regionally specific relatives. Johannesburg’s kota (derived from the word quarter) can be filled with anything and everything from garlic polony and chips to fried eggs and achar. The only rule is that the sandwich needs to satisfy the soul in ways that less alarmingly artery-clogging sandwiches simply don’t do. Forget “mogodu Monday”; there is no better babalas cure than a kota with all the trimmings, washed down with a “groen ambulans” (Cream Soda).

In Soweto, a flattened kota is known as a biff. The concept exists nationwide but it is only in Soweto that it has a specific name. Whether you flatten the sandwich by wrapping it in newspaper and sitting on it or by placing it under the wheels of a passing taxi is entirely up to you. As long as it is squashed so flat that the sides and fillings fuse (à la tramezzini). Such fusion makes it easier to pull pieces off the sandwich, which, in turn, makes it easy to share. This is the key point about such sandwiches – edible ubuntu is baked into their epicurean identity. They are all designed to be shared. Pretoria’s sphatlo (which differs from a kota in the direction that the bread is cut) explicitly incorporates the concept of sharing into the title as its name is derived from the Setswana verb “to partition” or “to share”. It is a big, carbohydrate-heavy, superfilling, communal meal. While a refusal to share food is always anti-social, privatising a sphatlo somehow seems particularly offensive. The best of who we are as a nation is squashed into a sphatlo.

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Some say that a Gatsby is the Cape Flats’ contribution to the food form. If so, the quasi-French stick-shaped bread is a much less efficient carrying case than the rectangular receptacles used elsewhere. There’s an idea that it’s named for its resemblance to Robert Redford’s flat cap in the 1974 movie, The Great Gatsby – which only works if you’re seriously squint. Its share-share ethos is definitely a common feature. In Eldorado Park, Gauteng, a Gatsby is known as an AK. Both are generally blessed with masala steak, melted cheese, fried eggs, chips and several tongue-teasing sauces.

Amid all this juice and joy it would be irresponsible not to underline the dangerous medical impact of South Africa’s sandwich habit. It is almost impossible to imagine a food source more jam-packed with fat and salt. Hypertension is a complex disease – both lifestyle and genetic factors contribute to our country’s soaring epidemic – but the suitcase sandwiches are certainly part of the problem.

All things in moderation. In street sandwiches we see a slice of South African history. Ours is a culinary culture marinated in the bitterness of racism and the sweetness of sharing. It is the ultimate lemons into lemonade story, but who needs lemonade when everyone knows that a bunny chow pairs to perfection with a cane and coke...

Diarise

The kota reaches the peak of perfection in Soweto. So it is fitting that the Soweto Theatre is playing host to the first Kota Festival on September 16 and 17. More than 30 of the township’s finest kota makers (including the iconic Palessa’s Fast Food in Molapo and Mark’s in Orlando East) will dish up delights. DJs from Jozi FM and YFM provide musical magic. Wash down kota after kota at the beer garden. Take part in wine tastings and umqombothi-making lessons. A jumping castle ensures that younger brethren can bounce their kotas up and down. The Healthy Kota Challenge – prizes for those vendors who reduce salt and oil – is offset by the deep-fried ice cream stall.

Time: 11am till late. Ticket prices: Children R20 (online), R30 (at the gate), adults R50 (online), R70 at the gate. VIP tickets R250. Tickets available at webtickets.co.za, selected Pick n Pays and the Soweto Theatre. Contact Sidwell on 071 739 5886 or Fikile on 073 905 7790 or visit sowetotheatre.com


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