Sometimes you read a recipe and it beckons to you to live it, breathe it – make it. There’s something to that – recipes are like blueprints waiting to be given form, a set of instructions – almost like a poem, waiting to be lived. It’s when you cook that it comes to life.
Until you cook it, you imagine what it will be. Maybe I obsess a bit too much about the trajectory from recipe to cooking to finished dish to eating – but a recipe, in that way, is a particular kind of intrigue, an adventure.
Especially when that recipe is from a culinary sphere very unknown to you. A country you’ve never been to – a culture you don’t know very much about. And yet here I am, looking at the ingredients list for this East African stew, and I know these ingredients – I understand them. I can understand how they would be put together.
It’s just like curry – that ultimate of all ultimate comfort dishes. These ingredients represent “home” to me more than any other – turmeric, coconut milk, green chiles, lime.
Except the dish is not from “home” at all, it’s from Kenya.
Is it really so unknown then, so unfamiliar? Perhaps not. The truth is, we are all far more alike than we are different. To find the familiar and the comforting in a dish that hails from a faraway culture is what I imagine delights world travelers – finding the threads that weave humanity together no matter how foreign the land.
I’m much more an armchair traveler – books, reading, recipes is how I do the bulk of my traveling. I know myself too well. A jungle safari or a trek up the Himalayas looks good on paper – so rugged, adventurous and seize-the-day – but my disposition is far too sensitive to handle the reality.
I’m a spoiled brat that way, a total loner. I can barely handle a night at the club. I usually want to be home and in bed with a book just when the party is getting started.
Well, seasons change and so do people. Maybe some day I’ll be up for a bout of globetrotting and a trip to magical Kenya. For now though, Kenya comes to me via this dish because the good people of Saveur were rugged enough and inquisitive enough to do the actual traveling for me.
Kuku Wa Nazi (East African Chicken Stew)
Though this curry looks fiery and spicy, in reality it’s not. Rather it has a strangely cooling effect – between the creamy calming qualities of the coconut milk and refreshing tanginess from the lime. It’s rich, no doubt – but it’s not a harrowing curry. The only word I have for it is soothing. It’s like the lullaby of curries.
Saveur’s recipe calls for fresh plum tomatoes which I would definitely go for especially since summer is nigh (nigh = favorite word for pretending I’m Shakespeare). I had the equivalent of a small can of canned, chopped tomatoes in my freezer so I used that. It enhances the tanginess of the curry even more deeply but I would think that if you prefer the stronger coconut-turmeric hit to come through, the fresh tomatoes would be a better option.
Obviously you can go with skinless boneless whatever and I know chicken drumsticks don’t make a pretty picture, but sometimes you just have to cook with bones. Okay? They’ve got flavor. If you’re barbarically inclined, you can chew the bones. If you’ve never chewed chicken bones (real, organic ones otherwise don’t bother), you’re missing out on one of life’s great pleasures.
It’s not always about what’s pretty. In fact, with food, it should always be about what’s tasty. And this is definitely tasty.
1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil
1 medium-large yellow onion, minced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 packaged chicken drumsticks (about 1.5 pounds)
1 small (8 oz) can chopped tomatoes, or 3 fresh plum tomatoes
4 green Thai bird chiles, minced (seeded, if you absolutely have to)
Juice of 1 juicy lime (use a bit more, about 1/4 cup total, if lime isn’t juicy)
1 (12 oz) can coconut milk
In a medium-sized pot that comes with a lid, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute until translucent. Add the turmeric and stir – you want the turmeric to lose some of it’s jarred quality. Be sure not to burn the turmeric – or it will lose its gorgeous golden color and turn brown. If necessary, reduce the heat, or add a splash of water to keep it from burning.
Add the chiles and tomatoes, then carefully drop in the chicken. Squeeze in the lime, pour in the coconut milk (careful not to splash yourself) and give everything a good, big stir. Bring the pot to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low, cover the pot and simmer for 45 minutes. The longer you simmer, the jauntier everything gets in the pot, so don’t skimp on the simmer.
Serve with steamed rice.
Serves 4 inquisitive souls.