Ah, the braaibroodjie: a perfect combination of cheesy gooeyness, crunchy toastiness paired with the beloved taste of smoke, sweet-and-sour Mrs Balls chutney and tangy onion.
South Africans have a broodjie – a sandwich toasted on the braai grid – for every occasion. For summertime braaiing, we have the classic onion, cheese and tomato braaibroodjie. For school, our moms make us skoolbroodjies. For holidays, there are re-warmed, savoury mince jaffles and for road trips, nothing beats a room temperature padkosbroodjie washed down with a cup of sweet Cremora coffee from a flask.
Eating padkos is synonymous with going on holiday in South Africa. Driving up from Port Elizabeth to Cradock along the N10 this past holiday, this was evident once again. Dotted along the side of the road were fancy couples hanging out of their SUV boots, Volkswagen minibuses carrying grannies, kids and dogs, tired taxi drivers and crumpled passengers, all stretching legs and grabbing a bite to steady them for the road ahead.
Whether you stop at one of those old off-ramps with the little concrete tables to enjoy your bounty, or bask in the scent of sandwiches in the comfort of your car, padkos is what holiday tastes (and smells) like.
Padkos has evolved. Roadside snackers are no longer bound to leftovers and homemade concoctions. Farm stalls along most of SA’s roads act as gourmet padkos pitstops, and there’s even a good case to be made for a fresh bucket of KFC chicken with rolls, given that you share it with your fellow passengers…
One thing is certain; padkos is not padkos without that broodjie to make it a meal.
For my family, padkos remains glorified leftovers and is not complete without hard-boiled eggs, cold mielies from the previous night’s braai, frikkadels and the all-important padkosbroodjie.
White bread is a must, as is a lettuce leaf to act as a barrier for tomato juices that might soak down into the bread, making it soggy. Rest assured that the lettuce leaf will be a little wilted by the time you eat your broodjie… and if you don’t bite it off clean, it might come sliding out of the sandwich and slap you on the chin.
It sounds unappealing but, for some reason, padkosbroodjies need that lettuce to work. It adds that familiar “padkos” flavour. It’s a flavour also found in the southern Americans’ favourite Wilted Lettuce Salad, where warm bacon fat and vinegar is used as a dressing over the leaves, wilting them to release a unique and desirable flavour.
I prefer the padkosbroodjies without tomato, however, for fear of the soggy bread. “In the old days, you ate what you were given,” my dad Wentzel recalls from the padkos stops of his childhood. “The children got tomato, onion and cheese broodjies and only the adults had homemade cold cuts on theirs. Leg of lamb from a previous Sunday’s roast or slices of corned beef or gammon, if we were travelling after Christmas.”
This is often the case. South Africans hardly ever miss a family Christmas even if it means travelling great distances on horrendous roads, sometimes in unreliable vehicles at the mercy of over-tired drivers. It explains why our roads are so busy during Easter and Christmas.
When you finally arrive at your destination, there’s another beloved broodjie that signals the official start to your holiday. Jan Braai reckons it’s “the most iconic item on the menu at any braai and probably the best meal in the world”. Ah, the braaibroodjie: a perfect combination of cheesy gooeyness, crunchy toastiness paired with the beloved taste of smoke, sweet-and-sour Mrs Balls chutney and tangy onion, for balance.
We love these two broodjies equally for the unique roles they fulfill, but did you know that the braaibroodjie and the padkosbroodjie is, in fact, the same thing? Yes, trust our ingenious food forerunners to not want to waste a crumb. Leftover padkosbroodjies were rid of their lettuce and thrown on the cold coals to crisp up. The gentle heat and smoke would mask any trace of sogginess and transform the old tomato, cheese and onion sandwiches to heavenly status.
Generational disputes over the use of chutney on a classic braaibroodjie wage on. Yet we all agree on one thing – “Braaibroodjies is draaibroodjies”… in other words, turned over on the grid – you need the most vigilant of braaiers to make the perfect braaibroodjies. They need to be turned constantly to ensure they’re crisp and golden on the outside, with gooey melted cheese on the inside.
It’s a standard on which relationships are built. In his hit song, Blaas jou Vuvuzela, Jack Parow asks a prospective girlfriend: “Voordat ek jou oopmond soen, sê my, kan jy braaibroodjies maak?” (Before I kiss you, tell me, can you make braaibroodjies?)
Our beloved broodjies can transport us back to childhood. One bite of a fresh peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich and you’re back in primary school, trading broodjies for marbles. The boarding school kids didn’t have much to wager; our go-to was brown bread with a thick layer of “dakverf” (roof paint) – our nickname for the luminous red mixed fruit jam we got.
On Mondays, however, the boarding school kids’ skoolbroodjies were award-winning. Everyone drooled over our roast lamb, cheese and chutney gourmet broodjies, or ones with peanut butter, honey and banana on French toast. Our favourite was my mom’s mince and cheese snackwiches. She had one day to send us off with skoolbroodjies, and she made it count.
Perhaps that’s the allure of the broodjie. Not the fancy toppings, but a simple act of care – and the refusal to waste any leftovers, of course.
Making someone a broodjie always means you care. A dry Marmite broodjie for when they’re ill, a skoolbroodjie for when they’re better. A padkosbroodjie to kick off the holiday, and to act as a last hurrah when returning home again.
My dad still measures every padkos stop to that of my great grandmother Ouma Tok, who perfected the padkos prototype. She packed linen serviettes and a tablecloth and set those roadside concrete tables like she was hosting the Queen. Keep calm and have a padkosbroodjie…
Things have changed… these days, we skip the formalities and dive right into the plastic containers and tinfoil parcels with abandon. But the effect remains the same; it’s a simple meal shared with excitement and familiarity in true South African roadside style.
Next time you have leftover padkosbroodjies, try them on the braai. You can use this Universal Broodjie recipe for padkos, braai or snackwiching:
8 slices of store-bought white bread
Mrs Balls chutney, smeared to taste on 4 of the slices
Mayonnaise, smeared to taste on the remaining 4 of the slices
8 slices good-quality white Cheddar
3 ripe but firm tomatoes, sliced thinly
2 red onions, sliced thinly
8 iceberg lettuce leaves
Butter the bread slices to all corners before adding chutney and mayo to opposing slices. Stack the chutney slices with cheese, onion, tomato. Salt and pepper generously. Add lettuce and close the sandwich with the mayo slice. Cover with tin foil and keep refrigerated before hitting the road.
If braaiing or snackwiching the leftovers, add butter to the outsides of the bread and remove the lettuce before applying heat. DM