It may look like a simple cheese panini, but braaibroodjie is more than meets the eye both culturally and taste-wise. Traditionally served at the end of a South African barbecue — braai in Afrikaans — these sandwiches are usually cooked over open coals and include and unusual combination of flavors: sharp cheddar cheese, tomato, onion and a layer of fruit chutney. My twist swaps out the raw onion for smoky grilled scallions and can be made on a grill pan or outdoor grill. Crunchy and gooey with a unique savory-sweet balance, they make a great lunch or crowd-pleasing late-night snack.
I learned about braaibroodjie from a South African acquaintance who waxed rhapsodic about her father's braai. Although the meal centers around grilled meats, it is the toasty cheese sandwiches grilled over the low coals at the end of the day that she most looks forward to. I was intrigued by the ingredients — cheese and chutney? — and her enthusiasm for the sandwich, which I found echoed by other South Africans when I started researching braaibroodjie. "The best part of the braai!" seemed to be the universal reaction.
I hope my take on the sandwich isn't too blasphemous, as it accommodates my dislike of raw onion. Hoping that some magical transformation took place during the grilling process, I did give the original version a chance, layering thinly-sliced raw red onion with tomato and cheese, but the resulting sandwich was too aggressively oniony for my taste. Grilled scallions, on the other hand, have been one of my obsessions this summer, the heat of the grill mellowing and slightly caramelizing the onions into a soft smokiness that I can't get enough of. So I gave the sandwich another go, this time grilling a couple scallions over high heat before letting the grill cool to low while I prepped the rest of the ingredients.
I don't usually keep chutney on hand, but luckily my friend, preserves-master Jessica of Sqirl, had just stocked her shop with a Santa Rosa plum chutney that worked beautifully with the sharp white cheddar cheese and grilled onions. And I didn't have any open coals in my apartment kitchen; instead I used a grill pan and metal pot lid to crisp up the buttered exterior of the bread while melting the cheese inside. While I imagine a braaibroodjie tastes its best eaten outdoors at the end of a long day of barbecuing, it's still pretty stellar indoors at lunchtime, and given its devotion in South Africa, would probably make a welcome surprise snack at the end of a cocktail party or other gathering.
South African Cheese, Grilled Onion & Tomato Panini (Braaibroodjie)
Makes one sandwich
scallions, trimmed and halved lengthwise
good-quality white bread
grated sharp white cheddar
small tomato, sliced
Heat a grill or grill pan until very hot. In a small bowl, toss the scallions with a little oil. Grill until blackened and soft on all sides. Remove to a plate and set aside. Turn down the heat and let the grill cool to low.
Generously butter the slices of bread and build the sandwich with the buttered side out. On one slice, sprinkle about one-third of the cheese. Top with the tomatoes, salt and pepper, more cheese, the grilled scallions and the rest of the cheese. Spread chutney on the other slice of bread and put the sandwich on the grill. Using a flat metal pot lid, press down on the sandwich lightly and leave the lid in place as the sandwich cooks. Grill until golden-brown, about two minutes. Flip and repeat with the other side. Serve immediately.
I used a plum chutney, but any homemade or good-quality store-bought fruit chutney will work.
Thinly sliced red onion can be substituted for the scallions.
(Images: Anjali Prasertong)