What makes Kenyan chicken magical? Tomatoes and coconut

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KENYAN COCONUT CHICKEN

BY ARTHI SUBRAMANIAM
PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE/TNS

When chicken is cooked with tomatoes or coconut milk, the result is delightful. When it’s cooked with tomatoes and coconut milk, it is doubly delightful.

Take Kenyan coconut chicken, for instance. Tomatoey goodness clings to the tender pieces of dark meat and a spiced coconut sauce swirls around them without hijacking the conversation.

Even though the recipe does not have curry in its name, it includes most of the makings of one. Onion, ginger and garlic are the aromatic trio commonly found in any saucy meat curry. But Kenyan chicken does just fine without the onion. A good measure of garlic and finely grated fresh ginger more than make up for onion’s absence.

Roots in Mombasa

Another surprising no-show in the recipe is cumin, and I didn’t miss it. I have seldom seen ground coriander fly solo; it almost always goes hand in hand with ground cumin or cumin seeds. But coriander has plenty of earthy oomph and a spicy edge — it does swimmingly well by itself.

The dish is finished with a splash of lemon juice because it needs to be anchored by a touch of sourness. With fresh cilantro leaves sprinkled on top, it goes well with any kind of rice dish or flatbread.

Kenyan coconut chicken is a variation of the popular kuku paka and has roots in the coastal city of Mombasa. Kuku means chicken in Swahili, and it can be grilled before being added to the sauce or braised in the sauce. The minimalist way to serve kuku paka is as is, but potatoes, cobs of corn or hard-boiled eggs can be tossed in with the chicken, too.

If you were looking for a chicken wonder, you just found it.

Adapted from Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Magazine (January-February 2020

KENYAN COCONUT CHICKEN

Be careful not to overcook the garlic, ginger and ground coriander in the beginning or they will lose their oomph at the end.

  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed, halved and patted dry
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons neutral oil
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 jalapenos, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely grated
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 cup lightly packed fresh cilantro, chopped

Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper. In a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat, heat oil. Add half the chicken and brown without disturbing for 3-5 minutes per side.

Transfer to a bowl and repeat with remaining chicken.

To the skillet, add garlic, jalapeno chilies, ginger and ground coriander. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, 30-60 seconds.

Stir in tomatoes with juices, scraping up any browned bits. Then stir in coconut milk and water. Add chicken and any juices and cook uncovered, stirring and flipping occasionally, until a skewer inserted into the largest piece meets no resistance, 20-25 minutes.

Turn off heat and stir in lemon juice and fresh cilantro.

Taste and season with salt and pepper.

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