Chicken can be sauced with anything. Tomato gives you chicken cacciattore, mushrooms and sweet wine gives you Marsala while white wine and lemon is franchese style. Sub in coconut milk and spices and you have the Kenyan version kuku paka , a departure from the ordinary poultry dishes.
Tejal Rao , famed chef and food writer, wrote about it in yesterday's New York Times Food section,Simply put it's chicken on the bone smothered in a sauce. The name is abbreviated from the Swahili kuku wa kupka, roughly, chicken in sauce. However , there are different variations on how the meat is cooked. It can be charcoal grilled, steamed with aromatic herbs or braised. The sauce, itself can be pale and soupy or dark and glossy. Some home chefs make it mild while others add enough chilies to burn the throat.Corn, potatoes, and even halved hard boiled eggs are added. Yet there should be some unifiers according to famed food writer and actress , Mahur Jaffrey (she's the one responsible for bringing Ismael Merchant and James Ivory together). One is a touch of sourness and the heat of green chilies. The sourness comes from a squeeze of lemon juice but some Kenyans also add a spoonful of tamarind pulp for the same effect.
Kenyan food blogger,Kaluhi Adagala has her own spin on the dish.It's common in the coastal cities, but she comes from the interior where it is a big deal. So is her recipe. She adds sprigs of fresh rosemary, crushing them to release the fragrant oils. Her's is also golden, tinted with the mellow flavored turmeric and either serves it over hot rice or chapati, flatbread. Sometimes Ms. Adagala serves it with ugali,a type of polenta that is a regular in Kenyan diets.Another Kenyan, the Nairobi caterer and recipe developer,brines the meat in apple cider vinegar. She also cooks the aromatics such as onions and ginger raw in the coconut milk., letting them mellow in the fatty liquid as she constantly stirs. Home chefs can replicate the flavors, first using their grills to cook the chicken. This imparts a nice smoky flavor that goes well with coconut milk along with the cumin and coriander. As for the coconut , most Kenyan cooks use fresh coconut milk, however it's kind of difficult to get them right now. Ms. Rao suggests using two cans or 27 ounces of coconut milk plus two tablespoons of coconut oil.
Kuka paka is a tasty departure from the usual chicken dishes. Try it for a flavor that rich in spices and textures. It's exotic but delicious, complex to taste but easy to make.