Jan Braai doesn’t believe in braaing with gas, refers to chicken as a veggie (it’s one of his standing jokes), has an exercise programme to get anyone braai-fit, can cook a steak to perfection in just about any conditions and broke a world record when he braaied non-stop for more than 28 hours. He’s also a man on a mission: to unite all South Africans around simple wood fires for one day each September. And it seems his goal is more within reach than ever before ahead of this year’s National Braai Day on 24 September.
After studying accounting and a short career in financial services, Jan Scannell – aka Jan Braai – resigned from his job at the end of 2005 to focus on National Braai Day. It’s an initiative that started seven years ago and Jan says results from a recent market research survey have revealed that 33 per cent of all urban South Africans over 18 actively celebrate National Braai Day by having or attending a braai on 24 September. ‘This is a phenomenal figure,’ he says, ‘and that really does motivate me to get up in the mornings and continue spreading the message.’
While the bulk of his time is spent promoting National Braai Day and his new book, Fireworks, there is more to Jan than his passion for sosaties, wood fires and cultural unity.
As Getaway readers and viewers of his kykNET TV show, Jan Braai vir Erfenis, you may be familiar with his say-it-like-it- is persona and the tongue-in-cheek jokes he cracks while deftly flipping a coil of boerewors with one hand, a beer clasped in the other. However, he wasn’t always as expert with a pair of braai tongs.
‘The first time I attempted to make a fire myself was in our garden, using wet leaves,’ Jan recalls. ‘It smoked a lot and did not really burn. And since then I hate using wet wood.’
His father taught him how to braai, and during his formative braaing years he spent weekends with his grandparents, learning to braai with wingerdstompies (vines) from his maternal grandfather and using wood that his father’s father had sourced from the veld outside Kleinmond on other occasions.
‘Neither really used firelighters,’ he recalls. ‘They opted for a generous splash of paraffin over the wood before lighting it.’
Nowadays, his braaing isn’t limited to just the weekends – in fact, when he’s filming for his show he braais just about every day. Fish, lamb, veggies, pasta … he’s braaied it all, and says he has quite a few favourites.
‘From a lamb, it’s the loin chop or a deboned and butterflied leg. From beef, it’s a dry-aged T-bone steak or oxtail potjie. Pork-wise, I like neck chops or spare ribs, and Portuguese-style peri-peri chicken is also awesome. From the sea, I braai a lot of yellowtail at the moment, with snoek and peri-peri prawns always on the cards.’
He’s also travelled far in search of truly special dishes. ‘I once read a story about a butchery in Stockholm that dry-ages rib-eye steak for 10 weeks. In South Africa, it’s considered very long if a steak is aged for four weeks, so I made a mental note to go there the next time I visited Europe. About two years ago, I did exactly that. The Ryanair ticket I used to fly in and out of Stockholm from Frankfurt was cheaper than the 400-gram steak. I wasted no time in gathering wood and braaied in the snow. It was both the most expensive and coldest braai of my life.’
Jan has recently launched his first book, Fireworks. Published by Pan Macmillan, it costs R250 and can be bought from leading book stores. Read about Jan’s experience of writing the book and win a copy.
Here are a few recipes from Fireworks and an extract on the ultimate braai kit.
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