Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Week 34: A Journey to Kenya

Within a few minutes of beginning my Kenyan cuisine research, I knew my biggest challenge would be finding unique Kenyan attributes to familiar East African dishes.  Kenyan cuisine primarily includes readily available, local, inexpensive ingredients.  For the most part, these dishes date back thousands of centuries, but through the influences of other cultures arriving in East Africa, their flavor profiles have evolved.  The Portuguese colonized large areas there during the fifteenth century and taught East Africans the techniques of marinating and roasting meats.  In addition, they introduced foods from their other colonies, such as citrus fruits from Asia and peppers, corn, potatoes, and tomatoes from the Americas.  In the nineteenth century, the British assumed rule over the region and brought workers from British India to build a railroad.  When the railway construction was complete, many of the Indian workers stayed in the region as they saw opportunity for financial success there.  Curries, chapatis, and chutneys were incorporated into East African cuisine as a result of their presence.  Today, most Kenyan meals include a stew or grilled meat served with staple fillers, such as corn, millet, sorghum, or, on occasion, rice.  For this week’s menus, I selected dishes that represent common, everyday meals for families in Kenya while also highlighting Portuguese and Indian influences.

Thursday Dinner:  Chapati (Flatbread) and Kuku na Nazi (Chicken with Coconut)
Always a fan of curries, I wondered if choosing to make one might be “cheating” on the project as they are clearly more than Indian-influenced; however, I discovered that they play a role beyond sideline within today’s Kenyan cuisine.  I found numerous references to these dishes, specifically Kuku na Nazi.

kuku na nazi

The Kuku na Nazi is really just a basic chicken curry.  Its list of ingredients includes ginger, garlic, chiles, onion, curry powder, fresh cilantro, cumin, and coconut milk…none of which represent a twist or unusual addition to a traditional chicken curry.  Not surprisingly, it tasted great, and while it may not have presented a new flavor profile for me, it successfully imprinted the significance and influence of Indian culture within Kenya’s modern day cuisine.

Chapati is an unleavened flatbread.  In my research for Kenyan Chapati recipes, I found versions using only all purpose flour and other versions using combinations of all purpose, whole wheat, and/or teff flour.  Since Indians traditionally use whole wheat flour to make chapati, I opted to use half all purpose and half whole wheat.  It’s a very simple dough of flour, water, ghee (or oil), and salt.  The key is kneading and folding it properly so that the final product has the characteristic bubbles in it, and I followed the precise directions for doing so included on  I cooked them in a cast iron skillet, and overall, they turned out well.  The first one I made was heavy and oily, but after a few practice runs, I figured out the technique and the necessary amount of oil needed in the skillet to keep them lighter.

Friday Dinner:  Nyama na Irio (Roasted Meat and a Mixture of Mashed Potatoes and Vegetables)

nyama na irio
Nyama Choma, which literally means roasted meat, is usually an outdoor bbq of goat, although beef is also often used in this dish.  Interestingly, I found definitions for this dish stating vehemently that this roasted meat is never seasoned with more than a baste of salt water while other definitions stated that the meat is fully marinated in citrus juices and curry spices.  I opted to use Beef Short Ribs for my version, and I marinated them in a mixture of fresh garlic, lemon juice, curry powder, turmeric, coriander, paprika, salt, and pepper.  My plan to grill the meat over charcoal was spoiled by Tropical Storm Isaac’s impending rainstorms, so I simply roasted the short ribs in the oven until they reached a medium rare temperature. 

Irio is a dish often served as an accompaniment to roasted meats.  The dish is basically mashed potatoes with other vegetables mashed into the mixture….a sort of mashed vegetable medley.  I mixed peas, fresh corn, and fried onions into my version.  Spinach or other greens are often added, as well, for nutritional value.  I didn’t expect to like this dish very much as it seemed a bit like baby food, but I must say it was really delicious.  The combination of the creamy mashed potatoes with the crisp bursts of fresh corn, buttery fried onions, and sweet peas creates an interesting counterpoint to the rich, charred beef with its curry seasonings.

Saturday Lunch:  Sukuma Wiki (Stewed Greens) and Ugali (Cornmeal Mush)
sukuma wiki and ugali
As I’ve mentioned in this blog previously, I just can’t pass up an opportunity to cook down a big pot of collard greens.  Sukuma Wiki is a Swahili phrase that literally means “push the week”.  This dish offers an inexpensive meal for a family stretching its dollar over a week.  For this dish, greens are stewed with onions and tomatoes.  To me, the inclusion of tomatoes is the most intriguing part of the dish, because it exemplifies the influence of the Portuguese bringing tomatoes from the Americas to East Africa and because it differentiates the dish from the better known Gomen in Ethiopia.  I read that leftover meat from Nyama Choma is often added to the dish, so I saved some of the short ribs from Friday night’s dinner to include in the stewed greens.  Surprisingly, the meat did not add any significant flavor or texture to the dish.  The most interesting and satisfying flavor addition in this dish is fresh lemon juice for brightness.  All in all, I found sukuma wiki to be a delicious take on one of my favorite comfort foods.

Simply put, Ugali is cornmeal and water…East Africa’s equivalent to polenta, grits, and fufu.  The dish can be made in a thinner format similar to the texture of porridge, but more often, it is made with just enough water to bind the cornmeal so that a thick mixture can be poured out, cooled, and broken off into pieces used as “utensils” to scoop up stews.  Honestly, this dish is just heavy and flavorless.  I tried a bite or two with the collard greens, but I didn’t really care for it.  I’ll stick with the collard greens!

Admittedly, I anticipated this week’s Kenyan menus to feel like “going through the motions” as I was not overly excited about any of the dishes.  Perhaps that explains my delight in discovering several dishes that I really enjoyed.  I could feast on Irio and Sukuma Wiki any night of the week and be completely satisfied.  Another joy of this project…finding pleasure in the unexpected.

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