The braai unites South Africans

The braai is surely the quintessential culinary experience in my country, South Africa. It's an institution in households from Messina to Cape Town, bridging social and economic canyons, and even giving us a sense of our common identity.

On the surface, the braai (it rhymes with "eye") is similar to a barbecue, but they should not be confused. The braai tradition is intimately intertwined with our laid-back, outdoor lifestyle. It has everything to do with the year-round sunny skies and temperate climate. It's a ritual practiced in homes, restaurants, and camps, at game parks, on the beach, in the bush ... pretty much wherever you find one or more of us.

Where there's smoke, there's fire; and where there's fire outside in the gigantic deep freeze that is Boston in winter, you're still likely to find a South African or two connecting with their roots, huddled around a hot grill. It might just be my wife, who is also South African, and me. Or we might include friends we've made since moving to Boston almost two years ago.

The word braai has many meanings. It can refer to the act of grilling ("please braai the meat now"); the equipment used (a grill is a braai to many South Africans); and the social occasion ("you're invited to a braai").

For many of us, it is a rite of passage. Some of my earliest memories are of watching my dad pile the wood on the grill and then experiencing the delight of setting the newspaper or kindling on fire with a match (or two or three). In slow steps – learn, then do – one is eventually allowed to participate in the act of braaing. By its very nature, nearly every braai became a unique father-son bonding experience. There was always something to learn, something to speak and joke about. Staring into a fire is strangely inspiring.

I learned quickly that it's more art than science, as is apparent by these tips dad shared with me at an age when I could barely see over the top of the grill. First of all, he taught me, the heat should be spread evenly over the whole grill area. Second, a good indication of the correct heat is to hold your hand over the grid and count to 10. If you have to pull it back before then, it's too hot. Any later, too cold. Third, you can always regulate the temperature by moving the grid up or down. It's best to start high and move down as the coals become cooler. And finally, put the chicken or meat that needs to cook the longest on first. After the steaks are put on, add some thin pieces of wood to braai them in the flames. Vegetables such as potatoes in foil, onions, and squash are placed under the grid in the red-hot coals.

The "bring and braai" is the most popular kind of gathering and certainly Dad's favorite. Similar to a potluck party, this is a grand social event where family and friends converge on a picnic spot or someone's home with their own meat, salad, or side dish in hand. Meats are the star of the South African braai. They typically include marinated chicken, pork and lamb chops, steaks, sausages of different flavors and thickness, and when someone has really splurged, a rack or two of spareribs. Fish is also popular.

While the fire is lit and tended to, the kitchen (or makeshift kitchen) bustles with preparations: Vegetables are chopped or grated for salads, a large pot of cornmeal bubbles into "Krummel Pap," and its accompanying Tomato and Onion Sauce slowly stews. (See recipes.)

As the meat comes off the fire, it is placed in a metal or ceramic roasting pan to stay warm. When all the meat is ready, the salads and side dishes are placed on tables and the feast begins.

'Krummel Pap' (Crumbled Cornmeal) With Tomato and Onion Sauce

At every braai hosted by the writer's family, this traditional South African dish appears on the buffet table.

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

4 cups cornmeal

In a large saucepan, add the butter and salt to 5 cups water, and bring to a boil. Take pot off burner, add cornmeal, and return to burner to cook over medium heat for 20 minutes without stirring. Continue to cook for about 15 more minutes, stirring with a fork until the consistency is loose and crumbly. Serve in large bowl alongside a smaller bowl of the sauce (recipe below). Serves 6.

Tomato and Onion Sauce

2 tablespoons butter

1 large onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 (28-ounce) can whole, peeled tomatoes

2 large fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a saucepan, heat butter and sauté onion and garlic over high heat for about 3 minutes until onions are translucent and garlic is barely golden. Turn heat down to low, add remaining ingredients, and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently. If needed, add a tablespoon of sugar to sweeten. Spoon over Krummel Pap (above). Serves 6.

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