Top 5 Reasons Why a South African Braai Trumps an American Barbecue

By: Nicole

Trust me. I was skeptical too. When my then boyfriend, now husband tried to explain the beauty of a South African Braai, I'll be honest, I didn't really get it. It sounded like a basic barbecue. A gathering of friends and family eating food from the grill. "Our barbecues are great," I argued. "My dad makes a mean burger." But whenever we cooked out on the grill, my husband's face said it all - he longed for his beloved braai.

Just a little bit of background for those who have never heard of a braai. The word braai comes from the word braaivleis, which is Afrikaans for roasted meat. Braai means "barbecue" and vleis means "meat." The word is pronounced “bry” and although it originated with the Afrikaans, the word and social custom has been adopted by many ethnic cultures within Southern Africa. 

When I first visited South Africa in 2010, the night I arrived I was treated to the first of what would be many braais. I can honestly say I will never see a barbecue the same again. The food, the drinks, it was so much similar, so simple, but somehow so much better than our typical American cook-out. I’ll try to explain in ways my husband couldn’t, the top five reasons a South African braai takes the gold over an American barbecue. 

1. A braai is acceptable for ANY occasion

That's right. Birthday braai, christmas braai, going away braai, welcome home braai, a wednesday night just to get a few friends together braai, a graduation braai, housewarming braai, these are all perfectly acceptable times to have a braai. 

A braai, unlike a barbecue, is not only reserved for a Summer Day, Memorial Day or Labor Day, it's an any and every day celebration of life. While American's bring out the sandwich platters, fingers snacks, and hot dogs, South African's light up the braai. 

2. It's a process

A braai revolves around the fire, and the food. The food is cooked on (as the name of the gathering would suggest) a braai, which is basically a grill. But you won’t find gas on this grill. In fact, better not mention the word gas or you will get looked at like you just passed some! A major difference between the two types of cooking is that South African's use wood or briquettes (charcoal) when they braai. This means it takes significantly longer to get a fire going and cook the food, but that's the point. A braai is all about the experience, the company and the quality of the food. It's something to be savored, and in this time of convenience and hurriedness, I think that's something we can all appreciate.  

3. The food and "dop" 

Ah, the food.  You will not find plain jane hot dogs here. No way. South African's love flavor, and food served at a braai doesn't disappoint. We are talking boerewors, a spicy sausage, full of a beef and pork mix, and sometimes lamb, spiced with cloves, coriander seed, pepper, nutmeg and allspice. It never contains mechanically separated of processed meat and no more than 30% fat. Sayonara hotdogs. Also served can be any combination of steaks, rack of lamb, chicken, pork rashers, sosaties (kebabs), all types of seafood, and in my case, I've been known to throw on veggie burger or two. So. many. options!

Side dishes are similar to the all american barbecue, and guests will often bring a dish.  Examples are green salad, garlic bread, or my new current obsession, braai rolls, potato salad or potato bake. I've also hear of pap being served, but I've never had it. As for desserts, you can find cheesecake, and traditional South African desserts like milk tart, malva pudding, koeksisters, peppermint crisp, etc. Mouth watering yet?

And a braai wouldn’t be a braai without the dop. Dop is the Afrikaans word for "drink" and trust me this is something you will never have a shortage of at a braai. Whether it's beer, wine, cider, or a cocktail, if it's cold, it's consumed. 

4. It brings people together

A braai is the perfect excuse to get friends and family, young and old together. You could even say it brings the country together. Heritage Day, September 24, is a public holiday that has been coined “Braai Day.” No matter the language spoken or skin color, love of meat cooked over a wood fire is something that all South Africans share. And it’s something that they are all proud to have in their heritage. 

I can safely say it's no coincidence that since I've been living in South Africa, I've found that all of the friendships I've made have been at braais. Something about the relaxed atmosphere (and maybe the drinks) just makes me feel chatty. Speaking of the atmosphere…

5. The atmosphere

In our Florida apartment, my husband almost got arrested for trying to braai on a weber grill on our second floor balcony. Apparently there is a fire code in Florida that states you can't grill less then 10 feet from your house. Lame, right?  

Most homes in South Africa have a braai installed in their backyard or on their veranda, often times they will be in a lapa, a traditional style South African hut that keeps anything beneath it remarkably cool (I have no doubt a grill in a lapa would be illegal in the states). At our flat now, we have a built-in braai right on our patio! Also, wherever you go, there is usually a braai setup. At the guest house we stayed at in Kruger, they had a whole enclosed entertainment area for the braai, as well as an outdoor pool and sitting area.

American's may know how to do some things, but I can tell you without a doubt that the South Africans have nailed the braai, and it is something I am lucky to be able to experience on a weekly basis. When you are sitting outside, enjoying the beautiful South African climate, a cold dop in hand, warm glow of the fire nearby and good company surrounding you, it's impossible not to get the feeling that this is how life is meant to be lived. 

About the author

Expat Blog ListingNicole is an American expat living in South Africa. Blog description: Expat chasing adventure in South Africa. I'm a Traveler. Optimist. Foodie. Nature-lover. Wannabe Golfer. Soul-searcher. Join me as I show you what it's like to live in the Rainbow Nation.
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Contest Comments » There are 12 comments

Ann wrote 3 years ago:

Well, now you've gone and made me hungry. This seems like quite a cool thing to experience and... I want to go to one!

Holly Linton wrote 3 years ago:

Nicole - you are worlds away an we still feel in touch with you! You are an inspiration. We see you enjoying every minute within your blogs - but this one is mouth watering!!!! We are looking to enjoy a "South African Braai Day" here in the US!

Connie Linton wrote 3 years ago:

I get it never quite understood Jono wanting to have a "Braai Day". I love going on to your blogs and feel like I am learning as much as you on this once in a life time experience of South Africa. I am so very proud of your courage and sharing your experiences with everyone. Your writing skills are showing the true you. Keep up the great work.

Emily wrote 3 years ago:

Sounds like something I have to experience!! Maybe we can bring the braai to the states!? You do so great at sharing your experience with everyone!

Lillian wrote 3 years ago:

Love this! I still remember the night we celebrated Jono's birthday, SO delicious! I love reading about about all the cultural connections and differences you are experiencing.

Jonathan wrote 3 years ago:

I've had an American BBQ and a South African braai and you've hit the nail on the head with your comparison. Very well written blog.

Doris wrote 3 years ago:

Thank you for a great post and awesome facts about the South African braais.

Joan H wrote 3 years ago:

Awesome writing! Makes me want to host a braai and definitely grab a cold dop! Thanks for sharing!

Megan L wrote 3 years ago:

Wonderful job, lady! I love that it's an "any and every day celebration of life." Sign me up! Thank you for sharing.

Paulina wrote 3 years ago:

Thanks for sharing your experience of South African braais. I would love to go to South Africa and have a taste of the BBQ. I have never experienced a braais, but at least I will know what someone is speaking about if the topic of braais comes up!

Alli wrote 3 years ago:

Nicole, I loved reading this post to learn more about the South African version of a BBQ! I love how their culture seems to value experiences more than we do. So glad you are getting to be emerged in this!

Rosemary wrote 3 years ago:

Your explanation really does get to the heart of it! The "anytime" for "any reason" is very important!! It has a lot to do with our stunning weather. As a family we will often come home after work/ school and choose to have a braai for dinner : sitting outside catching up on the day, having a drink, watching a balmy evening turn into a magnificent sunset. A braai is not just a connector to people and culture it is also a connection to the outdoors :)

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