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Kenyan chicken dish is a love letter to coconut

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Kuku paka is an abbreviation of kuku wa kupaka, roughly translated from Swahili as “chicken in sauce.”

NAIROBI, Kenya >> The downpour stopped, so Kirti Patel decided to hold the dinner party on her balcony, with its views of colossal flowering trees. Pink vines of bougainvillea were in bloom, and the raw scent of ginger and garlic was in the air.

The centerpiece of the meal was Patel’s labor-intensive kuku paka, a coconut- chicken dish with roots about 300 miles east of her home, in the city of Mombasa.

For centuries, that port on the Indian Ocean was a hub for immigrants, many from other parts of East Africa, the Middle East and India.

Kuku paka is a product of the diverse influences that shaped Kenya’s coastal cuisine, and today it is craved and re-created in home kitchens and restaurants all over the country, and beyond.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Kuku paka is an abbreviation of kuku wa kupaka, roughly translated from Swahili as “chicken in sauce.”

The dish seems simple: chicken on the bone, in a sauce of spiced coconut milk. But you’ll find the chicken cooked in a number of ways — grilled over charcoal, or steamed with aromatics, or braised. The sauce can be pale and soupy or dark and glossy. It can be mild and easygoing, or it can prickle with chilies so your eyes fill with tears.

Some cooks will add corn on the cob, potatoes or halved hard-boiled eggs. Others crowd the sauce only with meat.

It’s a dish that welcomes tinkering, but every kuku paka is a love letter to coconut, its fat and its sweetness, the way it can make so many other flavors shine without losing its own. And everything in that coconut sauce seems a bit more glamorous than it did before, even a chicken leg.

Patel and her husband, Anil Patel, raised their two children in Nairobi, driving to Mombasa for family vacations by the beach, bringing home the flavors of the coast like a keepsake. Kuku paka, part of her culinary repertoire for decades, is both celebratory and nostalgic.

Patel began by splitting open a few coconuts. She grated the white flesh and pressed the mass to make coconut milk, setting aside the sweet, cloudy water to braise the chicken.

Once the milk reduced a little, Patel added the braised meat and let it all bubble together.

When the sauce was creamy, thick with finely ground cashews, and the leanest pieces of meat were tender, she threw cilantro and fried onions over the top and set the dish out beside a basket of mandazi, deep-fried yeast buns still warm from the fryer.

As her guests ate, a pile of clean chicken bones grew at the center of Patel’s table.

Madhur Jaffrey, an actor and author who lives in New York, researched kuku paka’s roots for her 2003 cookbook, “Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation.”

She adapted her recipe from a Kenyan-Indian immigrant who ran a restaurant in England. He slashed the meat as if preparing it for the tandoor, Jaffrey said, and roasted it in a hot oven to order.

But Jaffrey later published another version of the recipe, in “From Curries to Kebabs.”

In that one, adapted from a Muslim family who had immigrated to Kenya from the Indian state of Gujarat at the turn of the 19th century, the chicken wasn’t roasted at all. It was skinned, then simmered.

Kuku paka isn’t constrained by hard rules, but there are patterns in its variations. “There should always be a touch of sourness,” Jaffrey said, “and the heat of green chilies.”

This sourness often comes from lemon, but Agnes Kalyonge, a caterer and recipe developer in Nairobi, slips in a spoonful of tamarind pulp instead.

Kalyonge said original versions of kuku paka always called for that chicken to be grilled.

You can’t argue with the smoky flavors that come from browning chicken slowly, over charcoal. It lends the finished dish the umami-rich notes of barbecue and evokes the grills that were fired up on the coast a century ago as kuku paka hopped from kitchen to kitchen, edited and revised in each.

Kalyonge first cooks the chicken gently, wrapped in foil on the charcoal grill. Then she takes out the meat and sets it back on the grate, uncovered, to crisp the skin and to stripe each piece in so many shades of dark brown.

“That extra step that we take, before finishing it off in coconut sauce,” she said, “that is what makes it Kenyan.”

Kuku Paka (Chicken With Coconut)

  • 4 pounds bone-in chicken thighs and drumsticks
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 27 ounces (2 cans) coconut milk
  • Salt
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Cilantro leaves, for garnish
  • >> Spice paste:
  • 3 plum tomatoes
  • 1 white onion, quartered
  • 1 2-inch piece ginger, peeled
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 4 serrano chilies, stemmed and seeded (or less for milder dish)
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander

Trim excess skin from chicken, keeping some skin intact. Score each piece in 2 or 3 places, about a half-inch into the meat.

In a food processor, combine spice paste ingredients. Process into rough paste. Rub 1 scant cup all over chicken, into cuts and under skin, reserving rest for sauce. Set chicken aside in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or up to 5.

Prepare and light a charcoal grill.

Meanwhile prepare sauce: In a large pan, heat coconut oil over medium and add remaining paste, stirring occasionally, until water in mixture evaporates and oil separates, becoming visible on the surface, about 15 minutes.

Continue to cook, stirring more frequently so bottom doesn’t burn, until paste is thick and dark and raw smell has lessened, about 5 minutes.

Add coconut milk and simmer until sauce is about as thick as cake batter and has turned a mellow orange, 20 to 25 minutes. Turn off the heat.

Grill marinated chicken, turning pieces so skin is browned and meat is cooked through. Add chicken to sauce. Add water if sauce is too thick to coat meat.

Turn heat on to low; cover and simmer 5 minutes. Adjust seasonings with salt and lemon juice; garnish with cilantro. Serves 6.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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