The ultimate guide to South African Braai

Almost everyone loves a good barbecue, but South Africans take the classic BBQ to a whole new level with the braai. More than just a barbecue, the braai is practically a national sport. South Africans absolutely adore a braai and for them, the weekend usually means one thing: the aroma of grilling meats wafting from backyards across the country, while friends and family gather together for a good time. Ready to get your braai on? Here is everything you need to know about the iconic South African braai.

What is a South African braai?

adult seasoning meat on a grill South African braai

A braai is South Africa’s answer to the barbecue – but it’s so much more than that. It’s a special South African feast that can last for hours, and there are plenty of rules and etiquette around a classic braai. 

The most important part of a braai is the fire. A traditional braai is cooked on local wood, while modern-day braai’s use charcoal instead, and both give the meat a distinct flavour. Using gas to cook doesn’t count as a real braai.

Once there are enough hot coals, a grill is placed over the top and the meat is barbecued to perfection on the grill. Even once the food has been cooked, the fire is fed throughout the braai, as the social centrepiece of the event.

meat on a smoky grill South African braai

Using wood to create the fire is practically considered an artform in South Africa and even the type of wood used can make a difference to the braai. For example, kameeldoring (camel thorn) burns slowly and gives good heat and coals, while wingerd (vine wood) burns very fast and doesn’t give lasting coals, but is great for giving aroma and flavour.

The host of the braai is usually in charge of choosing the wood and tending the fire. Guests will often gather around the fire with a drink, chatting and mingling, while the host or the ‘Braaimaster’ cooks the meat. There’s a common saying: “Jy krap nie aan ‘n ander man se vuur nie” which means “You don’t mess around with another man’s fire!” 

Why is braai so important to South Africa?

The braai is an essential part of South African culture, and brings family and friends together in celebration for everything from birthdays to graduations to engagements and national holidays. It’s a moment to come together to share good food and feel the love around the fire. 

The word ‘braai’ is Afrikaans, originating from the Dutch word ‘braden’ which means ‘to roast’. The beauty of the braai is that it’s not specific to any one cultural group in South Africa, and it transcends the country’s turbulent past to bring the nation together.

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What kind of food do you braai?

Any meat you can imagine! Lamb, beef, chicken, pork, springbok, warthog, ostrich, eland, kudu, seafood, steaks and boerewors… Almost nothing is off-limits at the braai! Each piece of meat is marinated and grilled perfectly, and it’s served with side dishes like salads and desserts.

Besides the meat is the humble braai hero, braaibroodjie, or ‘braai bread’. This crowd favourite is a sandwich made from two slices of buttered white bread, filled with tomato, cheese, onion and chutney, and placed on the grill. It’s kind of like a toasted sandwich, but so much better because everything tastes better when cooked on the fire! And to wash it all down? It’s got to be the best local wines and beers, or even brandy and coke, known as karate water. 

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When do you have a braai?

South Africans will have a braai to celebrate almost any occasion or achievement – or to simply get the gang together! Many families will host a small braai once a week and do a big braai for the extra special occasions.

One of the best days to braai is South African Heritage Day on 24 September, fondly known as Braai Day. You can even hold a mini-braai for breakfast or hold a braai indoors if there happens to be inclement weather. Nothing can stop the braai!

Braai etiquette – how to braai like a local

South African braai may be all about having fun – but it’s also serious business. Everyone has their own braai tricks and techniques, and many South Africans are quite adamant about the best way to put on a good braai. Here are some of the hard and fast rules of any South African braai.

Rules of the braai

  • The host is normally the ‘Braaimaster’, or the one who builds the fire and grills the meat, while the other guests gather around the fire to socialise and observe the Braaimaster in action. The Braaimaster will have their own special ways of doing things, including a preference of wood, meat and cooking methods. Backseat braaing is a big no-no, so don’t pipe up and suggest different ways the braaier could do things.
  • The type of braai can differ. For a casual braai, or a ‘chop ‘n dop’ braai, you should bring your own meat (chop) and drinks (dop), while the host will provide the side dishes and the fire. If it’s a ‘bring and braai’, the host will only provide the fire, so you bring the rest. Always check before you go.
burgers cooking on a smoky grill South African braai
  • If you’re bringing your own meat, ask where to put it when you arrive. Ask if you can help with anything then settle in for an amazing night of braai.
  • Most South Africans hold braais on the weekend. They usually start in the afternoon around 3 pm, often carrying on until the early hours of the morning. Be sure not to arrive hungry as you probably won’t end up eating until quite late. Many hosts will hand out something like Biltong to snack on in the meantime. All good braais take time and you should never rush a Braaimaster while he works.
  • A braai is always an informal event and the meat is usually eaten in the backyard by the fire.
  • If the rugby is on, make sure you cheer for the Springboks!

How to experience your own South African braai

meat skewers grilling over hot coals

Want to experience a real braai? Join us on a trip to South Africa! We’ll take you to the beautiful coastal town of Hermanus in the Cape Winelands where you’ll meet local business owner Stefan for a special Be My Guest experience.

You’ll indulge in a traditional braai featuring local delicacies such as boerewors, pap and melktert (a South African dessert) and wash it all down with homemade wine, while Stefan shares stories of life in the whale watching capital of South Africa. 

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We’ll also take you into the northern wilderness of KwaZulu Natal to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park. You’ll spend a special evening here enjoying a delicious South African braai, surrounded by the enchanting sounds of nature.

Have you ever been to a South African braai? Let us know in the comments below!

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