Back in 2012 I had the incredible experience of living as a local in a rural part of Western Kenya for six weeks, on Rusinga Island, situated in Africa’s largest lake, Lake Victoria. Here, I was hosted by an incredible family as I taught at the local primary school and helped with the family’s feeding program for thirty of the community’s orphaned children.
I lived in my own mud hut on my wonderful host family’s property, but we ate all our meals together. I helped prepare food and cook over the fire, and we ate by candlelight. There was neither electricity nor running water, but as challenging as some may find these conditions for six weeks, I loved the whole experience.
It’s hard to single out one aspect of my time on Rusinga which is the most memorable, but – contrary to what you may expect – the food is right up there. Unlike most other aspects of my trip, it lives in more than just my memory as I learnt how to cook some of my favourite Kenyan meals while I was there, and now cook them for myself whenever I miss the food. My favourite meal was undoubtedly chapati and beans.
As a result of significant Indian migration to Kenya over the last hundred plus years, cuisine and other cultural elements from the Indian sub-continent has become a staple in life throughout the East African nation. Once, as I cooked chapati for myself at home in Auckland, my Pakistani flatmate walked in and exclaimed his delight when he saw what I was making. When I told him it was Kenyan, he bristled. “Chapati is from Pakistan!” After his irritation subsided, he agreed to taste mine and gave it his tick of approval, which I was pretty chuffed about.
Chapati is a simple yet delicious flat bread which makes an easy substitute for potatoes or rice. Serve with casserole, curry or soup. Instructed by my expert Kenyan host mother Lydiah, I’ll recreate her directions as best I can, so that you might try this delicious treat for yourself. As she didn’t use exact measurements, quantities are a little vague, but consistency can be amended by adding dough or water where necessary. Try this on cold nights... it makes for a great winter warmer! Bonus: it's super cheap and a delicious, nutritious vegetarian dinner idea!
In a large bowl, mix flour, a knob of butter or vegetable fat (if using oil, roughly a tablespoon), a generous pinch of salt, and a splash of hot water together with a wooden spoon. Add water as needed to get to a doughy consistency.
Once the mixture is well combined and starting to resemble dough, abandon your wooden spoon and start kneading with your hands. Sprinkle flour over as needed. You want to get your dough to a stage where there is no mixture sticking to your hands at all. If your hands look like mine in the bottom picture, keep going!
Remove the ball of dough form the bowl and flour your work space. (I usually abandon a board and work straight on my bench top for this part.) Separate your mixture into several smaller dough balls, aiming for the size of a tennis ball.
In the palm of your hand, pat down the ball to flatten it as much as possible. Then, roll it out using a rolling pin, flipping it from side to side to form as close to circle as possible. Remember to keep both the work surface and the dough dusted in flour to prevent sticking. Keep rolling until it is about half a centimetre thick
Once completely flattened, smear the surface that is facing up with vegetable fat, butter or oil. If using oil, dip your fingertips in lightly – if you smother your dough in oil, the chapati will become soggy and it will not cook well. This step is crucial to achieve the light, layered texture that is the end goal!
Putting a knife tip into the centre of your dough circle, cut down from the centre to the outside perimeter of the dough.
From one side of this cut, fold the dough to one side and roll around in a complete circle. Keep one hand on the centre point to keep it steady, and aim to follow the outside edge of your dough as you roll, so you end up with a conical shape.
The dough should now be in the shape of a cone, and the edges will be in a spiral. Fold these into the spiral centre, pressing them down, so no edge is sticking out. Apologies for the blurry photo here - it's the best one I got!
Squash the cone shape between your two palms, twisting slightly in opposite directions. You should end up with dough balls that have a distinct spiral shape. This is good! It means the oil you have just added to your mixture is evenly distributed throughout the dough, and that will result in delicious flaky layers when it comes time to cook. It may seem like a faff, but skipping this process means your chapatis will be stodgy and chewy... trust me, the faff is worth it!
Once again, flatten and roll out your dough balls to a circle, flipping from side to side and keeping lightly coated in flour. You should be able to detect the faint spiral pattern throughout.
Place your chapati into a hot pan which has been drizzled with oil. If you’re brave enough, use your finger tips to rotate the chapati in the pan and lightly push the dough outwards. Tread with caution though... Lydiah reprimanded me any time I would leave my hands on too long, saying, “eh! You watch or you will leave your hands in Africa.” Don't leave your hands in Africa, folks!
Ensure the chapati is constantly rotated and flipped. Don’t go shy on the oil – use a teaspoon to rub oil onto the upwards-facing surface of the chapati before flipping. Cook one at a time, and keep warm in the oven or a serving dish with lid.
Serve with your choice of meal, but in Kenya we always had this with a simple lentil and bean stew... delicious! For these photos, I literally spent a total of about £3 buying a can of kidney beans, lentils, chopped tomatoes and cheap veggie soup. Season with salt and pepper and voila! Tear chapati with hands and either dip in or eat on the side. YUM.