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spicy chicken curry with potatoes, carrots and tomatoes

I’ve been traveling again lately, for work. I know that doesn’t begin to cover my almost two-month hiatus from posting (in all honesty, it covered 10 days), but the weeks leading up to the trip were so consumed with preparations that at the day’s end all I wanted to do was sink into the bathtub with a magazine (I’d like to say the New Yorker, but usually it was an Anthropologie catalog).

When I traveled to Ethiopia earlier this year it was with high culinary expectations: I’d read chef Marcus Samuelsson’s recommendations in Food + Wine, and researched well-known eating spots in Addis Ababa. The food was incredible—fragrant, diverse, a departure from anything I’d tasted—and I came home inspired to track down berbere and ferment my own injera. Going to Tanzania for the African Green Revolution Forum, however, my expectations were somewhat modified. Free convention buffets rarely offer fare worth paying for, and vats of food lack transcendence by definition. I was expecting good coffee (the plantations are lush and widespread) and maybe a trip to Arusha one evening for an adventurous meal.

What I wasn’t expecting, however, was to have my beliefs about food provoked in a new and challenging way. Growing up in coastal region that exalts produce, in a family for whom celebration (even of the daily sort) revolves entirely around eating, I developed strong opinions about “good” and “bad” food at a young age. “Good food” was fresh, healthy, flavorful, and home-cooked or served in restaurants that cost more than your average trip to the grocery store (notable exceptions included “hole-in-the-wall” spots or anything trendy and ethnic).  Conversely, “bad food” was processed, generic, served in restaurants with more than one branch or delivered through a window. The definitions varied slightly (my friends and I went through a mercifully short phase when all “fat” and “sugar” were bad) but the dividing lines seemed fairly straightforward.

The problem is, “good food” and “bad food” only exist in places—or for people—fortunate enough to make the distinction. On a soil-testing field trip to a small Tanzanian farm, I opened my lunchbox and my appetite fell—and then my lunch fell, pried from my hands by a band of children who snatched the warm yogurt and cold fried chicken and left me sitting in the dirt. I suppose I could have felt annoyed, or unfazed since they clearly needed lunch far more than I did, but I was surprised by a stronger, somewhat more sinister response. You didn’t really want that, a voice whispered, it wasn’t “good food” anyway. There it was, exposed in a new light: an entire life philosophy—something I thought of simplistically as “eating well”—that felt silly and selfish in a place where eating itself isn’t guaranteed.

I suppose I could have rejected everything I believe about “good food” then and there, but that didn’t seem like the answer either. And then, on the last two nights of my trip, I witnessed an appreciation of food—both its growing and its preparation—that gave me more to think about. At Gibb’s Farm—an old coffee plantation perched on the Ngorongoro Crater—they grow everything from cucumbers to cauliflower to carrots, and the food they serve is both deliciously simple and far more nuanced than anything I’ve attempted. Sunday supper was a spread of traditional curries surrounded by homemade chutneys, salads, and pickled vegetables, and the aroma of freshly baked breads and rolls filled the modest dining room. Most importantly, everything was served with genuine warmth and pride.

Leaving Tanzania, I hadn’t reached a neat conclusion about what it means to eat well in a world that defies easy answers about anything. Still, there’s one thing I’ll try not to forget: whatever or however you eat, food is a necessity, a privilege, and a joy.

Spicy Chicken Curry with Potatoes, Carrots and Tomatoes

My South African family has been making weekly curries for as long as I can remember, and I recently graduated from the Nice N’ Spicy Masala packets to seasoning mine from scratch. Feel free to experiment with different meats and vegetables, and though roasting the chicken is an extra step I find it makes the meat much tastier and easier to shred.

2 large chicken breasts, or 3-4 thighs

2 tablespoons curry powder (hot or mild)

1 tablespoon Garam Masala

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

small pinch chili flakes

2 large onions, chopped

5 cloves garlic, crushed

1-inch chunk of fresh ginger, grated

2 large carrots, sliced into rounds

5-7 small potatoes, cut into small chunks

1 small zucchini, sliced into rounds

2-3 cups cherry tomatoes, or 1 14-oz can of crushed tomatoes

fresh cilantro

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Rub the chicken with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast for 20-30 minutes, until cooked through. Cool completely, then shred meat and set aside.

Combine spices and toast until fragrant over medium heat in a large pot. Add several tablespoons olive oil, then add chopped onions, crushed garlic and ginger. Saute over medium-high heat until onions are translucent, then add carrots, potatoes and zucchini. Cook vegetables until softened, 5-10 minutes, then add shredded chicken. Add tomatoes and enough water to barely cover the vegetables with liquid, then reduce heat, cover and simmer until vegetables are cooked through (you can simmer for as long as you need – I like to keep it on the stove until the liquid has reduced and the chicken really falls apart).

Serve with chopped fresh cilantro, chutney, and rice, pita, or toast.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. postgradmel #

    This was really well written and I wholeheartedly agree! I found your blog after reading your editorial in the L.A. Times (It really spoke to me since I was also a recent post grad) and have enjoyed following it. I’m a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco so unfortunately I haven’t been able to give many of your recipes a try- but someday! If you don’t mind me asking I was wondering where you work and what it is exactly that you do? Your job sounds pretty awesome.

    October 16, 2012

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