A Kenyan Pursuit: Perfecting the Chicken Dish Kuku Paka


Ms. 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, which has been part of her culinary repertoire for decades, is both celebratory and nostalgic.

She found what she needed at Fruity Fruits, a produce market that almost seemed to be showing off the city’s vast range of excellent, year-round ingredients. Back in her kitchen, Ms. Patel split 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, Ms. 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 yeasted buns still warm from the fryer.

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

Kaluhi Adagala, 25, is a Nairobi food blogger who previously worked in the finance industry. She adds sprigs of fresh rosemary to her chicken marinade, crushing the needles to release their pine-scented oils.

“For Kenyans who are more inland, this dish is an occasion,” she said, noting its richness. “We make it only from time to time.”

When Ms. Adagala does make it, she braises the chicken in coconut, tinted with turmeric, and serves it over hot rice, or with a stack of supple chapati. She also likes it with ugali, the plainly delicious boiled cornmeal that, unlike kuku paka, is an everyday pleasure.

Photo

Fruity Fruits, a produce market in Nairobi, Kenya, has a wide range of ingredients year-round.

Credit
Adriane Ohanesian for The New York Times

Madhur Jaffrey, the actor and author, who lives in New York, researched kuku paka’s roots when she published a recipe for the dish in her 2003 cookbook, “Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation.”

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

But Ms. 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,” Ms. Jaffrey said, “and the heat of green chiles.”

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

For her website, Ms. Kalyonge writes about a range of regional Kenyan dishes — from plantain, taro and pumpkin stew to braised chicken gizzards — and posts instructional cooking videos that she shoots on her phone, which is propped up by a tripodlike stand she built herself.

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