Print this page
Thursday, 31 August 2006

Welcome to the REAL South Africa: The Curries of Durban

Written by Diana Armstrong
Rate this item
(0 votes)

If you know anyone who has been to South Africa, they will probably have visited Capetown, Johannesburg and Kruger National Park, but it is highly unlikely that they would have visited the eastern port city of Durban, the biggest port in Africa. This city, more than any other city in South Africa, is where three major cultures have co-existed side-by-side for 150 years.  Zulus in beaded African headdresses, Indians in iridescent saris, and Brits in starched safari outfits have all been long-time residents of Durban. Brightly beaded rickshaws pulled by Zulus in full battle garb have been a fixture here for over a hundred years, affirming Durban's unique mix of the African and the Indian.


durbanI was born in Durban, thanks to my grandmother who settled here in 1909.  In her 20s, she set sail from Southampton England to work as a hospital nurse in India. The long ocean voyage from Europe to India took her around the southern tip of Africa, where she stopped to break her three-month trip and met her husband-to-be. She never got to India, but you could say she almost did, as Durban has the largest population of Indians outside India.


So I grew up in my own family’s strange masala: among our own vestiges of Colonial Britain -- its starched white clothing and Victorian ideals -- there were Zulu servants who kept large beaded snuff boxes in their elongated ear lobes, and  Indian cooks who simmered curries in our kitchens.


The curry of Durban comes from these Indian immigrants who were brought here from India as indentured laborers to cut the sugar cane around 1860s. Their recipes are now derivatives of the peasant curries that were brought by these original Indian settlers from the provinces of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.


curryDurban Curry is a spicy red curry, its dominant color coming from the fiery dried chilies used as the major ingredient in the curry powder. In the USA the best equivalent to Durban Curry powder would be what is usually labeled "red curry powder," rather than the one on our supermarket shelves, which tends to be yellow from the turmeric in it.   This dish was adopted by British settlers and Zulu inhabitants alike, simplified and streamlined to become a staple enjoyed by all. It is the one dish that every resident of Durban is passionate about.



A typical Durban Curry is made in a heavy pan. First, onions are browned in oil, and then the curry powder is added, followed by garlic and ginger. The mixture simmers a little before the lamb, chicken, beef or fish and finally tomatoes are added. The pan is covered and the dish is left to simmer, bringing together all the flavors of this rich concoction.. Finally a little cilantro is folded in before serving.


The curry is usually served over white rice with condiments -- chutney, sambals and pappadums. Chutney is a fruit-and-onion-based preserve, often spiced with red chilies.  Sambals are small side dishes of chopped peanuts, grated coconut, various fruit chutneys, and sliced bananas Pappadum is  Indian bread made of ground lentils and chick peas. It is usually bought ready-made and then deep fried or grilled.


In the USA a casual invitation to friends would be, "Come over for a barbecue."  A Durban family would invite friends to "come over for curry,"  and they would sit by the swimming pool and serve the meal buffet style. Indians do not generally drink alcohol, but beer or a light, sweetish white wine is definitely a good accompaniment.


The best place to find the ingredients for an excellent Durban Curry is the Victoria Market.

Photo by Karen Tobia

In my youth this market was where most food in Durban changed hands, catering to British Colonials, Zulus and Indians alike with its encyclopedia of products and their accompanying tastes and smells.  In 1973 the Victoria market was damaged by fire and later rebuilt on a smaller scale. Today it caters more to tourists but it is still as colorful as ever but in a slightly more sanitized way. On the other hand there are still Zulu sangomas -- traditional healers selling very suspicious looking potions that would make Macbeth's witches jealous.



Every second stall within the Victoria market is selling curry.  The spicy blends of curry powder have very innovative names such as "mother-in-law’s tongue," "steak and chops," "chicken licken" and "green fish." The curry powders are piled into pyramids displayed in large white enamel bowls. The multiple mounds of the different blends have tones of brick reds, burned umber, and mustards. Here also curio dealers sell all sorts of products decorated with African beads, as well as carvings, brass goods and animal skins of all varieties.


Of course there are thousands of ways to make a curry, but what is the basic difference between a true Indian curry and a Durban Curry?  Durban Curry is much hotter and has more tomatoes.  To a Western palate the mix of a Durban Curry, although sometimes fiery hot, is much more sensuous and less restrained than its Indian cousin. When ideally cooked there is nothing more delicious.



Where to Stay:


Durban has very beautiful beaches. To find peace and quiet and a less crowded beach, stay or visit the seaside suburb called Umhlanga Rocks. You can have a delicious Durban Curry at the Oyster Box Hotel served on their outside terrace with a spectacular of the Umhlanga Rocks Lighthouse, the entire coastline and the city in the distance.


Where to Eat:


The Ulundi Restaurant at the Royal Hotel opposite City Hall in downtown Durban has an old curry restaurant reminiscent of the old British Colonial days.


The Jewel of India restaurant at the Elangeni Hotel on the beachfront, 63 Snell Parade is directly on the ocean in Durban.


Jaipur Palace, Northway, Durban North is a little out of town. It serves Durban Curry and also traditional Indian curries from various parts of India.


Kashmir, Umhlanga Rocks restaurant is in the chic and decidedly up-market suburb north of Durban called Umhlanga Rocks.


Side trips:


Durban is a good jumping-off point for all the game reserves of Kwa Zulu Natal, such as Hluhluwe Game Reserve.


Tourist Information:


Best time to travel? April, May, and June.


You can email the local tourist board at:

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.





Recipe No. 1.

Durban Curry

Here is a slightly Westernized version of Durban Curry developed for making in American kitchens:

Serves 8

2 pounds cubed lamb, chicken or beef

1/4 cup cooking oil

2 onions, finely chopped

1 teaspoon each fresh garlic and ginger paste

4 tablespoons Durban Masala* curry powder (or red curry powder)

3 large tomatoes, finely chopped

2 potatoes, 1/2" cubes

1 carrots, finely sliced

2 tablespoons apricot preserve

2 tablespoons vinegar

Salt and black pepper to taste

Fresh cilantro for garnish (as desired)

In a heavy pan, preferably cast iron casserole, heat the oil and add the onion, garlic and Durban Masala.  Sauté gently until the onion is a little brown.Add the meat and cook over medium high until the meat is brown, turning frequently.  Add the remaining ingredients, stir gently, cover with water or chicken bouillon, and bring to a boil. Cover tightly with a lid and place in the oven at 225°F for at least four hours.  Re-season and if necessary thicken with a little flour and water. Garnish as desired and serve with white rice, chutney and sambals.



Recipe No. 2

Durban Madras Chicken Curry

Madras Curry has more tomatoes than in a typical Indian Curry. Many of the Indians that immigrated to Durban in the 1860s came from this area.

Serves 6 - 8

1/3 cup canola oil

2 onions, chopped

6 chicken breasts, cut into cubes

1 can chopped tomatoes

3 tablespoons Durban curry powder or  red curry powder

1/2 teaspoon garam masala

1 tablespoon each chopped fresh ginger and garlic

1 cup frozen green peas

Chopped cilantro for garnish.

Salt to taste

Heat the oil in a heavy pan and cook the onions until they are golden brown. Add the spices, ginger, garlic and tomatoes and simmer for five minutes. Add the chicken, season to taste. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring at intervals. When the chicken is nearly cooked, add frozen peas and simmer for 10 minutes. Garnish with cilantro and serve with rice, chutney and sambals.


©Diana G. Armstrong

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

Related items