Sunday, August 9, 2009

Kuku paka

I've been meaning to try some more recipes from the Congo Cookbook
for a while now. I don't know much about the cuisines of sub-Saharan Africa and there's no better way to learn than actually cooking the dishes. But when I actually started looking around the site, the techniques and flavor combinations were familiar from the African diaspora. I've seen a lot of it before in Southern and Caribbean cooking. So, when choosing what to make first I ended up with Kuku Paka, an Ismaili dish from eastern Africa that mixes in influences from India. It's interesting that some of the same influences that went west into Africa also went east so this recipe actually has a fair bit in common with the Indian-influenced Thai Masaman curry. Well, I think it's interesting.

I didn't want to use the whole chicken the recipe calls for so I cut it (the recipe, not the chicken) in half and used a pound and a half of chicken thighs (which I tried to cut in half too, but my hatchet wasn't sharp enough to get cleanly through the bone. I ended up slicing down the side of the thigh bone to make smaller pieces instead.)

Kuku Paka

1 Tablespoons cooking oil or butter
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 sweet green peppers, chopped [I used a pile of small red and yellow sweet peppers instead]
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
2 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds chicken thighs, cut into small serving-sized pieces
1/2 cup water
2 to 3 potatoes, cleaned and coarsely chopped
2 small tomatoes, cut into chunks
1 cup coconut milk
2 teaspoons lemon juice
fresh cilantro or parsley [or both], chopped

1. Heat oil in large saucepan over high heat. Add onions and peppers and fry, stirring, for a few minutes until softened and starting to brown. Add garlic and continue to stir for one minute more. Mix in spices and salt and cook briefly until fragrant.

2. Scrape mixture to the side and add chicken to the pot. Brown the chicken on all sides. Remove chicken and set aside.

3. Add water to pot, scrape up browned bits from the bottom, lower heat to medium low and bring to a low simmer. Add potatoes, cover pot, and cook until tender. [This step takes approximately for-flippin'-ever so you may not want to follow my example here. The original recipe offers the alternative of frying the potatoes in a separate pan while the chicken is cooking in the next step. You should probably do that.]

4. Add chicken and cook until done.

5. Stir in tomatoes and cook for several more minutes until they collapse and start to form a sauce. Add coconut milk, reduce heat and gently stir and simmer until sauce thickens to however thick you want it. If you want it particularly cooked down, remove the chicken to keep it from overcooking. If you're using proper boiling potatoes, they can take it and will absorb some flavor so leave them in.

6. Squeeze in lemon and garnish with herbs. Serve with chapati or rice.

The lemon is optional in the original recipe, being a modification from another coconut chicken stew from southeast Africa, but I think the dish definitely needs the acid.

It's...well, it's not bad, as such, but I've had a lot better coconut chicken dishes. Putting the tomatoes and coconut milk in at the end doesn't bring out their best. Even with the lemon and herbs, the flavors are muddy--probably from the onions, peppers and spices that were over high heat for rather a long time. A few dashes of Maggi sauce help and add some African character but I still find that I want to dose it with hot sauce to wake it up and hide its imperfections. I've found another couple recipes for the dish online and both use hot peppers so that's probably OK. They also cook the chicken in the tomatoes and coconut milk so maybe I should be looking over there instead. Too late for this dish, though. I'll have to count on some time in the refrigerator to improve the flavors.


kat said...

All those flavors sound really good to me but I think I've made something similar in the past & had the same muddy flavor issues you mentioned

billjac said...

It's a matter of technique, I think. The Congo Cookbook is deliberately primitive so I need to remember to make refinements to bring out the ingredients' best.

Or just let it mellow during storage. It was substantially better on reheating.

Anonymous said...

when executed properly this dish should subtly combine the flavors of the different spices, lemon, and coconuts. Instead of cooking everything in the same pot, boil the chicken with garlic and ginger separately until it is almost done, and boil the potatoes separately as well. In a new pot, quickly saute spices, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and add coconut milk and a little bit of water. bring to a simmer and add the chicken, potatoes, and some hard boiled eggs, and lemon. add half cup of fresh milk for a richer curry. traditionally, this dish should be a yellowish orange color, and it should be more liquid and less chicken, compared to the photograph you have here.

billjac said...

That makes a lot of sense. Half the time these one-pot recipes make a lot of compromises on flavor and texture in deference to simplicity. Cooking the chicken and potatoes separately and then putting together the sauce at the last minute should keep the flavors fresh and bright. I'll definitely do it that way next time.