I could never be part of the chase. As long as I did not see it before the kill, I was more than happy to enjoy the finger licking chicken that my Grandmother lovingly prepared. Every year as a young child, my family would take the long dusty drive to visit my Grandparents in the beautiful hilly village of Junju, Malawi. We would bring with us gifts from the city – clothes, blankets, shoes and leave laden with maize, bananas, rice, beans, cassava and fish.
My grandmother and cousins as soon as we would arrive would busy themselves with catching the fattest chicken. My cousins would chase it around the banana trees but my Grandmother would know just how to coax and catch it, quickly and effortlessly slaughtering it. We would eat the chicken with nsima by evening candle light after being blessed by a lengthy prayer from my Grandfather, the Missionary.
The children, smelling of Lifebuoy and shining with Vaseline – clean after a day of herding goats and playing by the river, would sit on the floor eating from battered tin plates while the grown ups sat respectfully on the table with Grandma’s best China. Food would be served by the eldest child, everyone getting a skinny chicken piece and a fistful of nsima.
The chicken had a chewy texture, full of flavour and the sauce, a tangy smoky taste. My grandmother used no special herbs nor spices, no special olive oil, no complex cooking procedures. She simply would skin and boil the roadrunner (local chicken) and fry it with tomato and onion in a mud pot on the wood fire. I have asked my mother to replicate this dish but some thing is always missing.
In time I have to come to suspect there are three essential ingredients: a free range road runner fed on maize husks and food scraps, an unglazed clay pot and a open wood fire (not pine wood) in a small window less room. There is a fourth magic gradient…my Grandmother of course!
The scientist in me is curious (without taking out the magic) what is it about the clay pot that made the chicken taste soooo good. There are many cultures and dishes that cook in clay pots from the Moroccan terracotta tagine to the Chinese sand pot. The benefits of cooking in a clay pot range from retaining the essential nutrients to using minimal fat. My Grandmother did not use clay pot cooking (cooking food in an unglazed clay pot which has been soaked in water so as to release steam during the cooking process), call it mud pot cooking if you like, but she found a way to make trips to the village a culinary pleasure!