Every Sunday, a venerated ritual takes place across South Africa: Men in short pants gather around pillars of smoke, flipping pieces of meat or fish while women maintain a respectful distance. The rite is performed all over the land, by all races - at parks, campsites, roadsides, gardens, backyards, and around pools.
This is no religious ceremony, although some might argue otherwise.
It is the braai (pronounced breye). Literally translated it means a barbecue. It is a way of life, and some would even say, an art form. And it is taken as seriously in South Africa as rugby, the springbok, and the Krugerrand.
Braais tend to separate the men from the boys. (And clearly the menfolk from the women.) Traditionalists insist that women stick to making the salad and keep clear of the grill, a male domain where the men turn the meat and talk about sports.
In South Africa, it would be heresy to just slap a couple of hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill, with a follow-up of toasted marshmallows.
Here, both the meat and the methods are matters of deep and sometimes emotional debate. Men will take their sons aside at a young age and teach them the secrets of perfectly searing meat.
Some braai masters argue that only the most simple of grills with wood charcoal be used. Others advocate modern gas-operated braais or even electrical ones.
I once witnessed a heated argument as a newcomer to South Africa mistakenly put oily eucalyptus logs on the fire. As traditionalists know, choosing the wood can be as important as the cut of the meat. An aromatic log or shrub can make all the difference to taste.
But what all agree is that a necessary ingredient is a relaxed atmosphere, which can't usually be achieved at a restaurant. A braai is not just about eating, it is a leisurely all-day or all-night affair, preferably with a big crowd including assorted kids and dogs.
So prevalent is the braai experience, that in Johannesburg some restaurants don't even bother opening Sunday evenings. There's no point, they say - who would want to eat out after a stunning day lolling around, gorging on prime meats cooked on an open fire?
South Africa's diversity of cultures and tastes is reflected on the braai. Hearty stews are cooked in iron pots. Some breads can even be made by placing the dough directly on the grill. Potatoes are baked in the coals; tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, and squash are stuffed with cheese, herbs, and spices, wrapped in tinfoil, and steamed.
South Africa's well-stocked waters, bush, and scrub land teem with wildlife. This being a country of hunters, game meats such as kudu, ostrich, impala, wild boar, and antelope end up as steaks or sausages. All lend their delicacies to festive, versatile braai cooking.
Condiments show the legacy of the Dutch East Indies trade - dried fruits, cloves, and turmeric find their way onto the grill. The French influence shows itself in the Mediterranean spices like tarragon and rosemary. Traditional black African communities often serve a side of putu (cornmeal porridge).
Across the country, no braai would be complete without chops, ribs, and boerewors (farmers' sausage) - coarse, well-flavored coils of mutton or beef. A popular import from next-door Mozambique is chicken basted with piri-piri, a red-hot chili.
In Orange Free State, an entire lamb is roasted, served with corn on the cob grilled in the coals.
Braai masters in the southern Karoo specialize in mutton and lamb, which gourmets say have a special taste due to the herbs and grasses the livestock feed on.
The abundant Indian Ocean waters of KwaZulu-Natal are swimming with crayfish, prawns, and yellowtail. They are cooked on the braai wrapped in banana leaves and served with cornbread baked in tinfoil on the coals.
The southern Cape province has ample coastlines too, whose oceanic riches include squid, mussels, rock lobster, salmon, and steenbras. No braai in the Cape would be complete without sampling snoek, a silvery pike-like fish. It is served with muscat grape jam and thick brown bread on the side.
So wherever you go in South Africa, expect to be invited to this social repast. Just remember: men at the grill, women handle the salads, and kids and dogs (as everywhere) have the run of the lot.
Grilled White Fish With Citrus Marinade
Yellowtail is the South African fish often used in this dish. However, any firm-fleshed white fish such as cod, haddock, grouper, sea bass, pollock, red snapper, or striped bass will do.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated orange zest (rind)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon finely chopped basil (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 pounds of white fish, trimmed and filleted and cut in 2-inch cubes
Salt and ground pepper to taste
Combine the marinade ingredients in a large glass or stainless steel bowl. Add fish cubes and toss to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate for several hours.
Thread the fish onto skewers (you may alternate with fresh vegetables of your choice) and grill 7 to 10 minutes, turning once, and grill until the fish is lightly browned and the flesh turns opaque. Baste frequently with the marinade while cooking. Season with salt and pepper.
Serves 4 to 6.