Stir Fried: Indian-South African food grew from a strong network of villages

How a contentious cultural marriage birthed an unintentionally delicious cuisine

"Bunny chow" is a staple of South African-Indian cuisine.

Photo Illustration by Ryan Quan

Words by Clara Wang

Stir Fried: The story of any immigrant diaspora is the story of how outsiders became insiders, and nothing tells this story better than food. Names may get scrambled, languages forgotten, neighborhoods gentrified—but no matter how muddled histories become, the truth is served on a plate. Stir Fried breaks down the weird, messy, bastardized fusion cuisines that tell the story of Asian diaspora communities around the world.

Seventh-generation Indian-South African Candice Naidoo knows the spices for the world’s best masala grow in South Africa. Born and raised in a small village on the outskirts of Durban, South Africa, Naidoo descends from the hundreds of thousands of Indians brought to South Africa as indentured servants to work on sugarcane and banana plantations in the 1800s, forming close-knit communities demarcated by Apartheid laws. Though their living areas were strictly zoned before the end of Apartheid in 1994, Indian cuisine swiftly enmeshed with what the locals were eating, and Durban curry and “bunny chow” became South African staples.

Naidoo and her husband Devan, a fellow South African of Indian descent from Johannesburg, founded South African Food Affair, a food truck and catering business serving the particular combination of Indian and South African cuisine they grew up with. South African Food Affairs began as a passion project in 2016 while they were living in Seattle and missed food from their homeland, before they moved down to Austin in 2021. Their menu runs the gamut, from traditional South African foodBoerwurs (sausage), Biltong (an exceptionally tender beef jerky), and sides for Braai, aka South African barbecueto Indian food like curries and samosas, and much in between familiar to any South African craving a taste of home: savory pies filled with curry; prawn chutney and roti; corn fried with butter and masala; bunny chow; sandwiches filled with Durban curry.

The unintentionally delicious stepchild born of a contentious cultural marriage, South African-Indian food has picked up steam both at home and abroad, with a wave of South African chefs of Indian descent solidifying the cuisine’s place on the international scene. Celebrity chef Kamini Pather, a fifth-generation South African of Indian origin who won MasterChef South Africa in 2013, went on to be a guest judge on Top Chef South Africa and host various food and travel shows broadcast on South African and global platforms. Perhaps in a bid to prove its contemporary multiculturalism, South African media frequently spotlights chefs like Nivada Naidoo, Dion Vengatass, and Jessica Munisamy. Gordon Ramsay explored the influence of Indian flavorings in KwaZulu-Natal in an episode of his National Geographic show Uncharted. There are restaurants serving this hybrid cuisine scattered throughout the United States, such as Curry In A Hurry in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Kaia Wine Bar in New Yorkthough in much of the country, as Naidoo tells me, “Americans don’t really have a concept of South African food.”

About 1.5 million people of Indian descent live in South Africa today, mostly clustered around the Durban area, where the plantations were. South Africans of Indian origin are a heterogenous community that came in two major waves. Records show that more than 16,300 people from the Indian subcontinent were brought as slaves by Dutch colonists to the Cape of Good Hope beginning in 1684. From 1690-1725, more than 80 percent of the slaves in South Africa were Indians. Following the end of slavery in 1838, these people integrated into the Cape communities, forming a distinct identity that includes Cape Malay, the descendants of Muslim slaves from Southeast Asia.

Naidoo’s family was part of the second wave of Indians who arrived in the latter half of the 19th Century, and were split into indentured workers and “free/passenger” Indians. The earlier group of this second wave, starting in 1860, was categorized as indentured workers, as a substitute for slave labor, who were brought through a pact between three colonial governments to work on sugar plantations in Natal, the British colonial province that now encompasses Durban. While they were not technically slaveseach laborer was supposed to declare that he was going voluntarily before a magistrate, and was paid a meager sum of eight rupees per month for five yearsconditions were so harsh that the Indian government banned indentured labor to Natal in 1911.

A Black man and Indian woman, dressed in black, stand in front of a food truck that reads, "South African Food Affair."

From left, Devan and Candice Naidoo founded South African Food Affair in 2016.

Courtesy of South African Food Affair

The “free” Indians were ones who came at their own expense as British subjects to pursue new opportunities abroad, though emigration was put to a halt in 1913 when Natal’s Ministry of the Interior categorized all Asiatic persons as undesirable. Just a few months later, Gandhi launched his famous Volkrust Satyagraha against pass laws, and a group of Indian passive resisters (including Mrs. Kasturba Gandhi) were arrested and imprisoned. The indentured servants who survived their stints were free to remain in South Africa or return, but only roughly 27 percent of indentured men went back to India. The remaining three quarters, like Naidoo’s family, stayed and became part of the country.

Growing up in an intensely insular community, Naidoo tells me via Zoom that she didn’t experience any firsthand racism, though there was a “specific area that Indians were allowed to live and navigate in only.”

“I never experienced any racism or people treating me differently because of the color of our skin until I moved to America…because I think our parents and grandparents did an excellent job of making sure that kind of thinking or culture wasn’t going to be carried into this generation,” says Naidoo.

Naidoo was raised by her grandmother, who was the village seamstress and a fantastic cook, and would trade sewing jobs for produce or extra groceries. She has especially fond memories of her grandmother making fresh rotis by hand.

“The very last one, the smallest piece, she would put a bunch of sugar in it to make a sweetbread for my cousins and I,” says Naidoo, who continues the tradition today with her own children. 

Sharing food across apartheid divisions

While they weren’t allowed to live in the same areas, cross-pollination was rife. For example, Naidoo’s family would trade spices with the neighboring Zulus, who used masalas in dishes such as fried sardines. This type of intercultural trading is what produced the famous “Durban curry,” which has Tamil Nadu origins (where most indentured laborers came from) but is distinctly South African. The slick, oily red curry is distinguished by its use of a locally cultivated potato called “Up to Date” and the large amount of roasted chili in the masala blend, which gives it the signature crimson color. Durban curry often incorporates local and indigenous ingredients like amadumbe (local yams) and a type of free-range mature hen known as “running” chicken. Back when rice was in short supply, the indentured Indians would eat their curry with “mealie rice,” made by crushing white maize.

When she can, Naidoo only uses chilies and spices grown in South Africa. Though Naidoo has tasted the cooking of many native Indian friends and tried plenty of spices grown elsewhere, Naidoo maintains to this day that the best spices are from where she grew up.

“They’re much more potent. If I had to buy a garam masala from the Indian store and use it in my curries opposed to any of the ground spices that I bring back from South Africa, there’s just a world of difference,” says Naidoo. “The chilies just grow differently in South Africa.”

Published on July 10, 2024

Words by Clara Wang

Clara Wang is a freelance writer spending the year in Nashville who mostly muses about food, culture, sex, and the unbearable lightness of being a 5’0” Yellow girl quicker on her feet than Borat’s lawyers. Her work has been featured in publications such as Eater Austin, BuzzFeed, Refinery29, the Austin Chronicle, the Austin American Statesman, Daily Dot, and Giddy.

Art by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.