The Durban curry like the Durban char-ou is a unique culinary sensation. While indenture sought to turn people into numbers, without a past and a future, they fought back by innovating and experimenting with what was available in this neck of Africa.
This is exemplified in the Durban curry. As Sydney Mintz put it, “the taste of freedom was around before freedom itself”.
While the sari and the guli-danda might have disappeared from the streets of Durban, curry has spread its wings and enveloped the tables across this beautiful land; ask Fikile Mbalula who got the runs at Saxonwold.
Wings? Key I would contend is running fowl; a gastronomic delight. As the name implies, the fowl roamed free, feeding on worms and any other thing they could find in the peri-urban areas of the city. They were tougher than the force-fed chickens, and one could chew the bones till they turned to dust and melted in the mouth.
Rainbow chickens has closed shop, the rainbow nation is in the dustbin of history, but like Elvis, the running fowl lives on.
It is one of those ironies of life that my favourite meal was to become my nickname. Nicknames bestowed by fellow children can be as cruel as they can be incredibly revealing.
When I played soccer, whether in the street or at school, I ran myself into the ground. I pursued the ball like a cat chasing a cotton reel. I had no positional discipline and would pitch up on the right wing as quickly as left back. At half-time, I would snatch on my asthma pump, propelling me into another hour of headless pursuit.
Running fowl they wrote on the team-sheet. And it is a name that stuck through the generations.
On the turn of the millennium, I went to Bayview in Chatsworth to film a story about Diwali with Eastern Mosaic presenter Imraan Vagar. I had no idea the word “Vagar” referred to a seasoning. Parbhoo writes “it means the captured aroma of selected spices through a tempering that is an integral process of Indian cooking”. Vagar always lives up to his name - well-seasoned and exuding a seductive aroma.
Part of the story was to purchase a running fowl and present it to a pensioner in the area. As Imraan handed it over at arm’s length, the fowl broke loose and made a dash for freedom. As Imraan adjusted his trademark sunglasses and smoothed out his white linen pants, I cottoned on to the fact that I would have to capture the fowl.
The bird zigzagged up the hill, down Road 215, past Fowl Auntie’s shebeen. I followed. As it double-backed, people came out of their flats, shouting: “Running fowl, running fowl!” Children joined in the chant. Were they cheering for me or the fowl?
As Professor Rajend Mesthrie points out, the word “fowl” is very popular in South African Indian English. We have “fowl rogue”, a petty thief; “cut-fowl”, someone who goes off at a tangent; when a husband expects to be waited on hand and foot, “he wants fowl curry and rice every day”.
To write the biography of running fowl is often to write a history of a community. Running fowls are bought while still clucking and crowing.
In the old days, at the entrance to Kismet Arcade in the Casbah, Deva owner of the Poultry Centre would shove them into brown paper bags. The roosters pink cock’s comb that peeped above the packet intrigued, reminding me of the tongue I showed to Maya from our first floor balcony. She always gave me the finger. But that’s a story for another time.
The first step in preparation is to cut off the head of the fowl and drain the blood. The hair on the legs is then burnt off. The fowl is placed in boiling water so its feathers can be easily plucked. Except for the intestines, every part is used. The heart and liver are often removed and fried separately.
Today, running fowls can be purchased at the Bangladesh Market in Chatsworth. No longer running, they are squashed into cages, awaiting their fate. The blowtorch burns off the last of the feathers, and the bird is “dressed” to be taken home.
The array of Durban curry options is dazzling. For the vegans there is the incredible beans bunny. If Tony Blair had his way, he would have declared it a Weapon of Mass Destruction. The CIA has confirmed there are more brown bombers outside Patel’s Vegetarian on a Thursday at lunch-time than on the streets of Kabul on a Friday afternoon.
For scenes out of Fawlty Towers, make a turn at the Oyster Box and see the nouveau-riche Indians rolling down from houses on uMhlanga that are bigger than the steamships that brought their forebears from India, tucking into their bunny chow with their fork and knives. Hang around a little longer and have a fart as they try to squeeze their tender filled bellies into their Ferraris.
My mother could conjure up a fabulous fish curry with the taste of the tamarind forcing its way through the sauce. She had a special masala marked with a big X that made the stomach run faster than Usain Bolt that she sprinkled on the fish curry every once in a while. She once gave it to a white school inspector who was giving my father a rough time. Gandhi’s revenge, she winked at me. My friend Buds makes a mince curry with a whole egg. It must be eaten with bread buttered on both sides. If you butter him up, you might get two eggs.
Then there is crab curry. Govender’s are the masters of this delicacy. Eating crab curry, like regime change, is a very messy business. As you bite into the crab, the gravy flies in all directions. And so crab curry is best eaten only with your underpants on. We sat round the table, six young males with only our polka dot briefs (all the rage in the 1970s). Today, the Zimbali Indians break open the crab with diamond studded pliers and dress up in wet suits.
Let’s not talk of the upshot of crab curry, except to quote Joan Didion: “You know why they call it the memory sauce?” Martin asked, holding up a bowl of chilli. “Because you remember it in the morning.”
Like the aftermath of a good crab curry, this book cooked up by a Platter and spiced by a Fried-man (real names) will be remembered for many mornings to come.
Professor Desai is director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg. Platter and Friedman’s fabulous book, Durban Curry will be dished up at the opening night of the inaugural Durban Literary Festival on June 19. RSVP at [email protected] Book early - running fowl will be on the menu.