In homage to the weekend’s debauchery, Pravasan Pillay revisited Kara Nichha’s takeaway to eat one of his favourite sandwiches – a greasy symbol of egalitarianism, and the perfect cure for the Monday blues
I was in my hometown of Durban recently, and while there I was determined to visit all my regular food haunts. Kara Nichha’s, the vegetarian takeaway chain, was high on my to-do list, and I made sure I popped over to their relatively new location in Tranquil Street, Chatsworth, a few times during my stay.
I had always thought Kara Nichha’s was a Durban thing, but it seems to have outposts all over the country these days. According to its branding, it has been around since 1936, though I remember reading somewhere that there was a long period of time when it wasn’t operating.
Kara Nichha’s is famous for two things: ridiculously low prices for vegetarian curries, breyani and traditional snacks; and their Special Sandwich.
The Special Sandwich is really the only reason I go to Kara Nichha’s. Friends tell me that the curries and breyani are decent but I can get a decent curry or breyani in tons of takeaways and restaurants in Durbs – or pretty much any house in Chatsworth.
The Special, on the other hand, is something rarer. A minimalist work of art, it’s probably one of the best tasting sandwiches I have ever eaten. Tightly packed between two slices of toasted white bread – cut diagonally – are fried chips, cheese, onions, and a chilli sauce. It’s served to you in a small wax paper pocket, which is soon transparent with grease. That’s how you know it’s good. The grease never lies.
Part of the sandwich’s popularity stems from its price. I remember I would buy them for R2 each back in the day, which even for a broke student like me was dirt cheap. It cost R7.50 in December this year, still unbelievable value for money for a more than filling lunch.
Then there’s the sandwich itself. The warm softness of the chips and melted cheese contrasted with the occasional crunch of the onions give it a wonderful, comforting texture – and the toasted bread has just the right amount of give.
But this is all still a fairly utility toasted sandwich. What raises it to great sandwich status is Kara Nichha’s seriously good chilli sauce. I’m not sure if it makes it in-house or shops it in, but it lies perfectly in the intersection between spicy, sweet and acidic. What’s more, it never overwhelms the rest of the ingredients.
The sauce’s understatedness, modesty almost, in a way is an encapsulation of what I take to be Kara Nichha’s philosophy of frugalness, moderation and value. It’s like an ethical system built into a chilli sauce.
Durban, of course, has a long tradition of cheap, non-processed, hearty, democratic and dignified working-class street food. The Special, coming from a chain takeaway or not, fits nicely in that lineage. True, it doesn’t have the cool cultural cache of something like the chip and cheese roti, the forearm-sized late-night stoner classic from Durban institution Johnny’s, but it’s still tasty as hell. This sandwich is a must-eat.
Photography by Pravasan Pillay