Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Akoho sy Voanio (Chicken in Coconut Milk)

A dish from Madasgascar, you say? Yes, I do say, and yes, it is good. My first reaction upon reading the recipe for this was "that sounds relatively interesting... might be worth a try." My first reaction upon tasting the outcome was "holy ___ (something that doesn't rhyme with "now" or have anything to do with any food that I'm eating)!!!" It was a lot better than I had expected, needless to say (but said anyway). Here's what it looks like on plate:
Basically, this is like a curry without the curry, although I understand that adding curry is an interesting and pleasant side adventure. It's also remarkably simple to make. I nicknamed the recipe "the recipe of twos" because of all of the twos in it. To highlight that, let me list the ingredients:

  • Two pounds of chicken meat (I use chicken thighs, typically and here) or a whole chicken, cut it up or not ahead of time (mine is boneless thighs -- on sale at the store today -- cut into roughly one-inch cubes);
  • Two small to medium onions, chopped;
  • Two (or three) medium fresh tomatoes, chopped;
  • Two (or three) cloves of garlic, crushed and finely chopped;
  • An inch of ginger, sliced to dime-thick circles and sliced into matchsticks or finely chopped;
  • One can of coconut milk or the equivalent in homemade coconut milk;
  • Salt and pepper to taste;
  • Serve over (brown) rice (we always start with two cups, dry, for the amount of liquid this produces).
Of course, that's the "official," i.e. boring, version of the recipe. Here is an amendment I've found worth making: salt and pepper the chicken as you normally might before cooking it but also add a light dusting of cinnamon powder and cayenne pepper powder to it. Also, be very attentive to the salt -- either too little or too much really takes away from this dish. Had I not hit it on the head the first time I made it out of dumb, beginner's luck, my reaction would have been far muted from where it was and this probably wouldn't have ever been cooked in my house again (or on this blog). Luckily for all of us, it was perfect and delicious. My subsequent attempts have taught me to taste, resalt, taste, resalt, taste, resalt, etc., at the end until it's perfect.

Start by cutting everything up nicely. The chicken is secretly already cut up and browning in the pan (seasoned with salt, fresh black pepper, a dusting of cinnamon, and a dusting of cayenne) and does not appear in this picture. As you can tell, the first thing you do after that is start the chicken, which should be browning in a large pot with canola, peanut, or coconut oil. Peanut oil is most traditional, apparently, in Madagascar, and coconut oil is okay too. I used canola oil because it's what I have. Clicking on this picture brings up a bigger version so you can see how I cut up the ginger. I prefer it this way because the slightly bigger pieces taste nice.

Special note: depending on how long you need the "stew" portion of this to cook and the color of your rice, you might have started the rice ahead of time. Here are the tips for how I make rice (and I always make not-white rice):
  1. Toast your rice by putting it in the pan you intend to cook it in over medium-high heat and moving it around a lot until you hear the little grains popping softly kind of like popcorn or until you notice that they're getting a little toasty-looking;
  2. Season your rice with salt and black pepper at the least;
  3. Scent your rice with appropriate flavorings -- here I used two bay leaves and two coins of ginger;
  4. Use just a bit under twice as much water as you did rice for whole-grain rice (about a tablespoon short of double per cup of rice is about right);
  5. Let it boil after you've added your water for a little bit (two or three minutes) before lowering the heat and adding the lid.
  6. When it finishes cooking (45 minutes covered for normal brown rice), turn off the heat, shake it vigorously, and either replace the lid or never take it off... let it finish steaming until you're ready to use it.
This is a photo of the browned chicken when it's browned enough to add the onions, which go in next. It took it about six minutes over medium-high heat to get to this point, stirring it occasionally. It requires about that long again with the onions so that they cook until they are translucent. I realize this picture is sideways. I'm having technical difficulties today and am not feeling like fixing it this time.

After the onions have cooked thoroughly enough, add in the garlic and ginger and let it cook for another minute, stirring, of course. Then, add the tomatoes and coconut milk pretty much straight away. It looks about like this at that point.

I know... another sideways picture. It wasn't sideways in my previewer, and fixing this issue is kind of a game of jumping through hoops. I have better things to do tonight. After it cooks/stews in a mostly covered pan over medium heat (which you turn it to after the mixture comes nearly to a boil or starts boiling, depending a bit on your patience) for at least twenty minutes, it starts looking like this. Now you can start the process of salting it to taste, which requires a fair amount of salt because of the coconut milk. Essentially, it's done now if you used little pieces of chicken already cut up, but over the next little bit, the chicken will become more tender. If you used bigger chicken pieces, you'll need at least 10-15 more minutes than that. If you used a whole chicken, the total cooking time after the liquid is added is about an hour to an hour and twenty. Then you have to get the meat off the bone or figure out how you're going to serve it.

My only serving suggestion for this is to put it over the rice and don't be cheap with the liquid -- it's delicious. Also, expect seconds are in order once you taste it. It's really incredible stuff. A proper dessert in Madagascar involves peanuts almost always, apparently, so I usually finish this up with a simple American twist on that: a spoonful of peanut butter with chocolate chips in it or some equivalent peanut-butter-based candy that I don't buy much of.

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