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A silver car tows a yellow truck, painted with a South African flag and the smiling face of Nelson Mandela, into the early morning quiet of the square beside Spencer Dock Luas Station.
Wiseman Mangaliso and Eimear Simms step out of the vehicle.
They unhooked the truck in a corner of the plaza and unload a meat smoker, a black barbecue-like rig, with a slim chimney stack.
It’s 7.10am on a Wednesday. The clouds in the dark navy sky are violet, though a few are starting to streak orange at the edges.
Gulls caw over the Convention Centre. Construction cranes start to swing. A Luas screeches to a halt at its stop, and there is the faintest scent of coal in the air.
Mangaliso – the chef behind South African Braai, a recent addition to the Spencer Dock food market – has already started to load the black stuff into a box on the side of the smoker.
Time is precious. Mangaliso has to keep the fire going for more than an hour, before he fills the smoker with Boerewors, a minced beef sausage, and chicken thighs, he says. He adds cherrywood to the flames to intensify the heat.
Once the coal turns grey, the smoking starts, Mangaliso says. “When I see that coal grey, I am the happiest man alive.”
Up in Smoke
By 9am, all of the stall-holders and food-truckers in the Spencer Dock food market are busy setting up.
Mangaliso and his business partner Eimear Simms warm a couple of croissants on top of their meat smoker.
Mangaliso keeps one eye on the external thermometer. It has to remain between 100 and 150 degrees celsius, he says.
Braai is a South African form of barbecuing, Mangaliso says. “Braai, like barbecuing, will use coal.”
In a typical braai, the chamber would be filled with coal, he says. But his own technique varies from conventional barbecuing and South African braai-ing.
Mangaliso doesn’t cook directly over coal or flames. “Mine are different. We only smoke.”
The fire is in the offset box, which is separated from the main chamber by a hatch. Once the hatch is lifted, smoke is released into the barrel.
Mangaliso opens the lid to the smoker’s chamber, revealing two shelves. The lower one is filled with chicken thighs, and the upper one with Boerewors.
In the bottom left corner of the chamber is a smouldering heap of grey coal and cherrywood. The meats are at a remove, to the right.
The sausages are left on their shelf for 45 minutes. From time to time, Mangaliso pokes them with a meat thermometer to check the temperature, and juices spurt out.
The chicken sits and smokes for three hours. Every 20 minutes or so, Mangaliso bastes the thighs, brushing the skin with a “secret” brown sauce.
Experimenting with Tradition
From Cape Town, and a resident of Skerries, Mangaliso has worked as a hotel sous chef for 20 years, he says, including in two of Dublin’s Hiltons and the Herbert Park Hotel.
His idea for a braai food truck came during the first national lockdown.
He had long noticed the lack of South African food in Dublin’s markets, he says. “And I realised there are a lot of South Africans living here.”
Opening a restaurant wasn’t an option, he says. It was too pricey and too risky. A food truck made more sense.
The gap was clear, says Simms. “If we didn’t do this, somebody else would.”
Simms grew up in the Liberties. She was from a service background, having waitressed and tended bars in London and Dublin since college, she says.
When Mangaliso approached her with the idea of running a truck, she was hesitant, she says. “I did not believe I could do it.”
She had a lot of insight into South American food from travel, but South African food was slightly alien to her, she says. But Mangaliso’s enthusiasm captivated her. “I was trying not to get too interested, but the way he talked about this food, he was so passionate.”
The thought of smoking instead of grilling was an inspiration that struck Mangaliso while in lockdown. “It was something I had been doing at home, testing it out,” he said.
He had been taken with a couple of YouTubers in the United States, who specialised in smoking meats.
Creating a variation on braai-ing, which uses a smoking technique wasn’t easy at first, he says. “I couldn’t get it right.”
The breakthrough came when he found the meat smoker that the truck now uses, he says. “I first tried a tomahawk steak in it, and said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so beautiful.’”
Mangaliso sees smoking the meat as expanding the scope of South African cooking. But he opted for traditional flavouring for the Boerewors, he says.
“If you want to do something like that, you need to have the Boerewors sausage, because if you don’t have the sausage, it’s not the same,” he said.
Mangaliso searched down Uncle Bok Biltong and Boerewors, a Longford-based supplier, who used local produce to create the sausages.
Jeanette Byrne, the owner of Uncle Bok, said the sausages have a spice blend with salt, coriander, black and white pepper, nutmeg and cloves.
“Not a lot of people make the spice blend from scratch these days,” she says. “But we do, because I had the privilege of, back in the day, seeing my parents and grandparents make the recipe. So I have those recipes.”
Mangaliso serves the Boerewors sausage in a bun, which he leaves inside the smoker for less than a minute. Over the top, he ladles a tomato, pepper and onion relish, known as smoor.
The smoor relish was prepared in a thick, black pot, which was left over the smoker’s flame. The soft onions sit in a rich sweet contrast to the smoky sausage, which is melty tender.
The smoker adds to that tenderness, Mangaliso says. “You don’t lose any of the juiciness when it’s not grilled, whether it is for sausage or chicken, or whatever meat.”
The truck also sells Sparletta Cream Soda, a soft drink sourced directly from South Africa.
You can see braai-ing outside almost everywhere in warm South Africa, Mangaliso says.
Like the Boerewors sandwich, though, it is oddly suited to Dublin’s cold too, he says. “Everyday is a braai day.”
It’s 11am, almost four hours since they arrived. The quiet square is alive with chat, laughter and the drone of power generators. Opening hour is near.
CORRECTION: This article was corrected at 14.52 on 2 Feb. 2023 to reflect that South African Braai was set up at Spencer Dock, not George’s Dock. We apologise for the error.