Close to a century ago, when a small vegetarian restaurant opened on a nondescript street in the South African city of Durban, little did the owners know that this would one day be credited for popularising the bunny chow, now a street-food staple in the country. And while theories abound on how this delicacy – best described as a hollowed-out loaf of bread oozing with spicy curry – came about, this restaurant with modest interiors is often cited as its inventor.

Manilal Patel, now 74, runs the Patel Vegetarian Refreshment Room on Durban’s Dr Yusuf Dadoo street – earlier known as Grey Street – along with his brother, Prabhu. The two took over the business from their father about 50 years ago.

Manilal Patel, who runs the Patel Vegetarian Refreshment Room. Credit: Priyanka Vora
Manilal Patel, who runs the Patel Vegetarian Refreshment Room. Credit: Priyanka Vora

Where it began

Contrary to its name, bunny chow has nothing to do with rabbits. Instead, it’s probably got something to do with the word bania, a term used for the merchant class in parts of India.

During the 1800s and 1900s, Indians migrated in large numbers to Durban, many of them as indentured labour, some as traders. This dish, originally vegetarian but now widely available in meat variants too, was their gift to South Africa.

While some reports suggest that South Africans called Indian migrants bania, others say that the first restaurant to serve the dish was run by a merchant. The word bania became “bunny” and the dish came to be known as bunny chow.

Just as its name, the story of the bunny chow's birth also has several versions. According to one of these, wives of Indian labourers working on plantations would fill bread with curry for their husbands to carry as lunch, resulting in the creation of the dish.

Patel offers the most interesting theory. “Earlier, black people were not allowed to eat in the same place as the white,” he said. “To not lose out on black customers, Rambhai Morar Patel, the first owner of this restaurant, started serving them curry and bread in a bowl outside the restaurant. But the bowls would keep getting misplaced and so, he came up with the idea of hollowing out the loaf and pouring the curry in it.”

Patel, in turn, heard this story from his father, Ranchodrama, who came to Durban from a village in Navsari district in the Indian state of Gujarat in 1932. Ranchodrama started out as an employee at the restaurant when it began about 90 years ago and worked his way up to become a partner in the business. “He eventually bought the business when Rambhai wanted to retire in 1952,” Patel said.

Brisk business

Since then, the Patels have become synonymous with bunny chow. On the Monday that this writer visited it, the restaurant sold close to 600 bunny chows. “The recipe is simple – a combination of local and Indian spices is used to make the curry,” said Patel, who, along with his brother, starts his day at 3 am every morning so that he can dish out curries by the dozen. The restaurant opens for service at 6 am and stays open till 3 pm.

At the restaurant, four kinds of curry are served. Customers can choose one or mix two or more that they like. “Business usually peaks on Mondays and Tuesdays, when our many Indians patrons are fasting and prefer eating a vegetarian meal,” said Patel, who said the bunny chow was initially a vegetarian dish. Once it became popular across Durban and South Africa, versions of bunny chow with chicken and meat made their way into menus. Patel’s restaurant, however, true to its name, sells only vegetarian bunny chow.

Though the Patels have not expanded their business, theirs is a famous stop for bunny chow enthusiasts.

“When we began, we operated out of just a ground floor but today we have built a penthouse by selling bunny chows,” said Patel, who is content with their sales and profits and doesn’t feel the need to open more outlets. “I have seen many people trying to open a centre like ours. At least 15 of them tried and had to shut down.”

Credit: Priyanka Vora
Credit: Priyanka Vora

End of an era?

But Patel worries that after him and his brother, no one in his family will carry forward the legacy of the restaurant. “Our children have chosen different careers and I don’t think an outsider will be able to do the hard work that this business demands,” he said.

For regulars like Demophilus Pillay and his wife, Kerusha, this would come as a huge disappointment. “This is part of Durban’s heritage,” said Demophilus.

For now, Patel continues to dish out the delicacy at an alarming pace. Over the years, Durban has changed, South Africa has grown and racial segregation has been abolished – but the taste of Patel’s bunny chow has stayed the same, he said.