South African Chakalaka Inspired by Damon Galgut's Novel 'The Promise'

South African Chakalaka Inspired by Damon Galgut's Novel 'The Promise'

Thursday, 14 July, 2022

Food and drinks are some of the easiest ways — and the most fun— to vicariously experience another culture. When you add a great book to the mix, you've got the makings of a perfect evening. In Food+Fiction, we recommend a delicious read and a related recipe so you can try the taste of different destinations in your own kitchen.

This post is part of our Food+Fiction series.


Meals cooked over an open fire have been satisfying hungry guests for millennia — and the South African barbecue known as braai just might be the best application of flames + meat to be found. With a cold drink and a bowl of spicy chakalaka on the side? It’s pretty legendary.

The braai — pronounced pronounced ‘bry’ — is more than just grilled meat. It’s a feast that begins in the afternoon and carries on well into the night. There can be only one Braaimaster, a.k.a., the one who holds the all-important tongs. There’s even a phrase, ‘Jy krap nie aan ‘n ander man se vuur nie,’ that means ‘You don’t mess around with another man’s fire.’ The fire tended by the Braaimaster is made from wood (or sometimes charcoal), never gas.

Marinated meats including lamb, beef, chicken, pork, ostrich, fish, seafood, and the iconic boerewors sausages are grilled and served with sides including potato salad, garlic bread, a polenta-like cornmeal dish known as mealie pap, corn on the cob, and chakalaka.

It’s not a braai if you’re grilling alone! Instead, it’s meant to be a feast, a gathering of friends and family — as in the stunning novel The Promise by Damon Galgut.

The braai held by the Swarts family the day after a funeral is not the life-affirming vibe you can usually expect from a braai. This one is a fraught, can’t-look-away experience: terrible but fascinating to behold. Tensions among the family members are searing, but there’s also an odd sense of comfort in the well-established rituals of fire, meat, and beer — men manning the grill, women chopping the salads. Even the familiar verbal jabs and screaming silences offer a strange bit of solace.

In real life, a braai is on in any weather, and it’s usually a celebration of life and good times. After hours of leisurely eating, the Braaimaster will eventually put down the tongs. The cook fire, slowly stoked with fresh wood throughout the evening, becomes a hub for conversation, inviting everyone to linger a while. Spin a yarn. Have another drink. Eat a bit of melktert.

Chakalaka: Fun to say, delicious to eat

Variously described as a relish, salsa, side dish, and condiment, chakalaka is what traditional baked beans aspire to be: colorful, savory, spicy. It combines flavors from Zulu, Dutch, English, and Indian cuisine with a zing and earthiness that make it irresistible. Chakalaka most likely originated in the townships and gold mines near Johannesburg. According to lore, mineworkers from Mozambique combined tomatoes and beans with hot chile peppers to create a Portuguese-style salsa that spiced up the everyday mealie pap.

Each cook puts their own spin on this flexible recipe, adding more vegetables or cranking up the heat with extra chiles. But almost everyone begins with an aromatic base of onion, garlic, and ginger; you will be very happy to have a nose as you start cooking. Then earthy spices — curry powder, smoked paprika, oregano — are thrown into the mix before adding a wallop of umami with tomatoes. The recipe below also includes a secret ingredient to amp up the flavor: chicken bouillon cubes. (They’re used in this ridiculously good Nigerian suya, too.)

Photo by David Humphreys.

South African Chakalaka

Serves 8


  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or ghee
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2-inch piece of ginger, grated
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, diced
  • 2 carrots, coarsely grated
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 cubes chicken bouillon
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 (14.5 ounces) can baked beans


Sauté the aromatics. In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s very soft and translucent, about 7-10 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger; stir and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the veggies. Add the pepper and carrot to the pan and cook until just tender, about 3-4 minutes. Add the paprika, curry, oregano, cayenne, black pepper, and bouillon cubes; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Push the veggies to the side and drop the tomato paste into the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until it darkens in color, about 2 minutes. Stir the veggies and tomato paste together and cook another minute or two until it looks golden and yummy.

Bring it home. Add the baked beans and their liquid to the pan, stir to combine, reduce heat to simmer, and cook a few minutes until it has a texture that you find appealing. Taste and add more salt or heat, if necessary.

Note: This tastes very good on the first day and then really comes into its own after a day or two in the fridge; plan accordingly. It can be eaten hot, room temperature, or cold.


And at the farm, at this moment, a braai is just beginning… Now a table has been set up at the bottom of the lawn, while the sun sinks bloodily over the veld, not unlike the chunks of meat marinating in bowls. At the fire itself, Ockie tends to his coals. This is his contribution! Chops on a grid, beer in hand, then a man can be at peace. Salads are a woman’s job and if you listen you’ll hear Marina’s voice giving orders in the kitchen, Wash this, Slice that. — Damon Galgut

The Promise

by Damon Galgut

Fair warning: This Booker Prize-winning family saga casts a spell with characters you’ll be thinking about for a long time after you’ve turned the final page. The Swarts are a white family living on a small estate near Pretoria, South Africa. When the matriarch dies, the remaining family members disperse, running from the burdens of being part of this family. Their story unfolds through four funerals, each ten years apart, starting in 1986. This is a darkly humorous exploration of grief and betrayal threaded with a stealthy feeling that somehow, it will all be some version of okay in the end. {more}

This family drama (256 pages) was published in April of 2021 by Europa Editions. The book takes you to a homestead in Pretoria, South Africa. Melissa read The Promise and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it. is an online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community.

The Promise


Top image courtesy of Sunshine Seeds/Shutterstock.

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