Crawfish and Blue Crab Vindaloo "Bunny Chow" Recipe

South African-Style Crawfish and Blue Crab Vindaloo “Bunny Chow” Recipe

1st Place, 2023 Cook-Off for the Coast “Swims” Division

(Serves 4 people)


by Grant McCall




                  During the 19th and early 20th centuries, large numbers of South Asian people migrated to South Africa—especially the coastal region of KwaZulu-Natal around the city of Durban—often in the context of indentured labor during the period of British colonial rule. Over time, Indian food joined the many vibrant and diverse traditions that constitute the national cuisine of modern South Africa. Along the Indian Ocean coast and especially in its fishing communities, Indian cuisine focuses heavily on seafood, including a huge variety of finfish, crabs, shrimp (prawns), etc.

                 The “bunny chow” food tradition originated in Durban in late 1940s in part as a form of resistance to the precursors of Apartheid. The term “bunny” was derived from the Hindi word “bania” that referred (primarily) to Indian shop owners; and “chow” was, well, chow. It was curry packaged in a hollowed bread loaf: portable, tasty, and hot! Bunny chow was a food sold out of the back of corner stores to Indian and Zulu laborers (among others) as Apartheid began to restrict the movement of Black and Brown people, especially in urban areas like Durban. Through time, curry bunny chow evolved into a favorite dish along the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa and eventually into high cuisine.



First Principles


         There are two major things that distinguish South African-Indian food from its origins in South Asia. First, South African-Indian food tends to be made with cooking oil rather than ghee or butter. This had a lot to do with economic context of South African-Indian communities, particularly in urban areas like Durban, who lacked the access and opportunity to produce ghee or its equivalent. Second, South African-Indian cooking tended to compensate for the lack of traditional South Asian spices with hot (known locally as “fast”) chili peppers.

         Vindaloo, of course, is a dish originating from the Indian city of Goa that emphasizes heat and acid in the form of chili peppers, tomatoes, and red wine. While vindaloo has been popularized around the world in the context of Indian restaurants—in much the same way that something like “General Tsao’s chicken” has among Chinese restaurants (which I also enjoy)—it succeeds thanks to its appeal to people who really like hot food. While traditional Goan vindaloo is made with pork, and the restaurant version is conventionally chicken or beef, I find that the combination of chili peppers, tomatoes, and red wine work phenomenally well with the fat content of Louisiana crawfish tails.

         So, for this recipe, we want to focus attention on the heat from some seriously spicy chili peppers and complement that with the seafood flavors of crawfish and crab, including through the use of a crab stock. This dish is made with cooking oil rather than ghee or butter, and (to tell the truth) the exact combination of spices doesn’t matter all that much, as long as you get the very hot chili peppers right!



12oz crawfish tails

4oz blue crab meat

½ cup vegetable oil

1 finely chopped onion

1 finely chopped green pepper

3 finely chopped fresh cayenne peppers

2-3 cloves finely chopped garlic

1-2 rehydrated ghost peppers[1] finely slice (habanero peppers if ghost is unavailable)

4oz canned tomato paste

¾ cup crab stock[2] (or seafood stock; or water)

¾ cup red wine (preferably pinotage but cabernet/merlot otherwise)

2 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon paprika

2-3 teaspoons coriander

1 teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon ground cardamom

½ teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon fish sauce[3] (preferably phu quoc)

3-4 redbay leaves[4] (2-3 “regular” bay leaves if unavailable)

1 loaf of sturdy white bread





-Add oil to Dutch oven and heat for 2 minutes over medium-high heat


-Add spices (including salt) to heated oil and toast for 2-3 minutes until fragrant (but not burned)


-Add fresh vegetables and sauté 3-5 minutes until soft


-Add tomato paste and toast 2-3 minutes or until it starts excessively sticking to the pot


-Deglaze pot with the red wine and fish sauce, and stir until mixed


-Add crab stock gradually until reaching the desire thickness


-Add rehydrated ghost peppers and red bay leaves


-Cook covered on low heat for 1+ hours (as long as you can get away with)


-Add crawfish and crab and cook for 10-15; make sure ingredients are heated through


-Slice bread loaf into quarters. Hollow out bread pieces and fill with vindaloo.



Additional Notes


-Traditionally, South African curry bunny chow is eaten without silverware, granted that poses challenges when ghost peppers are involved.


-You want the vindaloo to have some thickness. Be careful adding the stock to the mixture because it is easier to continue to add more than it is to take out the stock once you have added too much in.


-Bear in mind that the seafood ingredients contain moisture and will also thin the gravy slightly when added.


-Don’t even think about putting potatoes in the vindaloo. The Hindi word for potato, “aloo,” has nothing to do with the word vindaloo, which is derived from the Portuguese “vinha d’alhos.”


-There isn’t exactly a law that says you need to use ghost pepper or habaneros or other similarly crazy-hot chili peppers. If that’s not your thing, you can use jalapenos, serranos, cayenne, or some other less extreme pepper; or you can just use green peppers (if you must). Tomatoes, wine, and seafood just taste good together, as a lot of Louisiana creole cooking affirms.


[1] To rehydrate, soak dehydrated peppers for about 24 hours before cooking.

[2] The crab stock—which is an important ingredient—can be made by boiling broken up blue crabs with salt, green pepper cores and stems, onion skins and stems, and celery (etc.). It’s okay and even better to use the “bad bits” of the veggies. Boil for about 20-30 minutes. You can make the stock ahead of time and refrigerate; or large batches can be frozen for up to 6 months. If you’re wondering whether is worth it to make your own stock, it is!

[3] In my opinion, fish sauce makes everything taste better. It provides an umami flavor that vindaloo should have and that shellfish tends to lack. I like the Vietnamese fish sauce phu quoc the best but others are just fine. You can also use anchovy paste or even soy sauce if you’re not into the whole fish sauce thing. Fish sauce should be used in very small quantities, i.e. if you can taste it in the final product, you put too much in.

[4] Redbay trees (Persea borbonia) are a tree belonging to the laurel family native to the Gulf Coast of North America and closely related to the avocado. They have a similar flavor to “regular” bay laurel leaves but are a little sweater. I think of them as being something between sassafras and bay laurel.