Jan Braai has become the poster boy of the Mzansi braai and his name has become as familiar as chakalaka, lamb chops and boerewors. However, long before he went on a mission to unite South Africans around fires, he was Jan Scannell, an accountant who loved good food.
“Accounting was boring. I was an accountant at PWC before the whole Gupta mess,” the much-loved author, television presenter and businessman tells Food For Mzansi.
Scannell was 25 when he quit his job in finance to permanently head the national Braai Day initiative. Fast-forward to a few years later, and Braai Day has become an integral part of the country’s official Heritage Day celebrations.
South Africans love to braai and Scannell remains resolved to unite the country. “We have a very fractured history and society. [I thought to myself how] can I make a difference in getting South Africans closer to each other.”
The braai doyenne is host of a popular kykNET series, Jan Braai vir erfenis, and author to seven books, including Jan Braai: The vegetarian option, a cookbook to herbivores and those who wish to experiment with braai alternatives.
Noluthando Ngcakani: It must be so cool to literally have the word “braai” in your nickname. How long has this been going for?
Jan Braai: In 2008 or 2009, when Twitter became a big thing in South Africa, my handle was @JanBraai. Jan is such a textbook South African name, so I am that Jan from Braai Day.
Did you ever imagine that Jan Braai would become such a huge name in the local culinary landscape?
No, that wasn’t really the vision. I just became the “poster boy” for braai in South Africa. I never intended to become this person famous for making food. I just liked eating and making nice food at home. Cooking is also something that started later in my life.
It’s not like I envisioned a career in this business.
It stemmed from a passion for South Africa and then thinking how I could make a difference in terms of nation building and social cohesion. In fact, I imagined that Braai Day would be bigger, where it is celebrated everywhere in the world, but with a positive focus on South Africa.
We know you as the go-to guy for braai meat. What inspired Jan Braai: The vegetarian option?
Whatever your reasons for choosing not to eat meat, you are still welcomed at the fire. We all know how to do basic vegetables as [braai] sides, but with Jan Braai: The vegetarian option the vegetables become the champion of the meal.
If I am writing books about braai recipes and all those books are just about how to cook meat, then someone who is vegetarian wouldn’t feel all that welcomed at the fire.
It is more important for everyone to feel welcomed at the figurative fire, so I wrote a book full of fantastic recipes for people that choose not to eat meat. Whether you eat meat or not, there are many great recipes. Vegetables are also way cheaper than meat. So, it is healthy, but it is also healthy for your credit card.
Some of us are still recovering after the recent Heritage Day long weekend. How did Braai Day come to exist?
It started from a passion for South Africa and uniting South Africans. Braai Day is about focusing on our commonalities as South Africans. What things do we have in common where we can all come together and see that we are not all completely different? We all like to stand around fires and make food.
We don’t have to agree on politics or sports, and we don’t even speak the same languages. we have 11 official languages, but the one thing we all do is we all like to braai.
I have braaied with many people. I am almost like a politician because I have engaged with communities and community leaders and made many speeches next to a fire in my 17 years of promoting Braai Day.
We have a very fractured history and society. [I thought to myself how] can I make a difference in getting South Africans closer to each other.
What are four essentials that every braai master needs?
You need a grid. You need tongs. You need something to put the grid on, like bricks or rocks. And gloves… I like having leather welding gloves or braai gloves, or you [can] steal your mother’s old kitchen mittens.
- Have enough wood: If you are wondering whether your fire is big enough, then your fire is too small, so make a big fire because it is fun to have a big fire.
- Invite pretty people: If the smoke is in your eyes, find pretty people to stand at the braai because the smoke always goes where the pretty people are.
- You must have enough ice: Ice is needed for cold beers and wine, when it is warm and, of course, to treat burn wounds.
- Braaibroodjies: You can butter a bread for braaibroodjies on both sides. It is the only chance you will get to have your bread buttered on both sides.
- Meat is almost like eating a vitamin pill: A cow, chicken and pig eat fruit and vegetables their whole lives….
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