Musa really enjoys sampling the exciting flavors that Los Angeles’ different immigrant communities bring to the table. Tasting an unfamiliar dish often inspires him to experiment with a new spice, or try a different way of preparing an old favorite. Cooking is a very positive activity for Musa because the kitchen is a space where he can make his own choices, and be in control of what happens. He likes transforming a pile of raw materials into something new and delicious.
“If you start with a raw onion, it’s just like a hard ball, and it tastes so sharp and hot that it makes your eyes water. Well, you could take a bite out of a raw onion, just as it is, but you can also chop that onion into fine slices, and cook them slowly in hot oil while they first start to brown, and then to melt down almost into a jam. You must keep stirring and stirring, to keep this from burning, and if you have patience enough, the harsh raw onion is totally changed into something so sweet and good! I like the feeling that I’m the one making things like this happen, so I really like to cook. The kitchen becomes my very own world, and I get to be in charge!”
On a chilly evening recently, he found himself craving a homey Chicken Pilau, like those he’d eaten back in Uganda. The memories of tender chicken browning with some smoky-sweet caramelized onions, and warmed with spices like ginger, garlic and cumin made his mouth water, and remembering how fluffy and flavorful some rice and potatoes could stew up in a pot of this awesome sauce made him want to head to the stove! There was only one problem; while he’d eaten LOTS of pilau, and seen it being cooked back at home once in a while, he’d never actually made it himself. Well, he wasn’t going to let that hold him back. There had to be some recipes and videos for Pilau on the internet, so Musa started Googling, and….WOW. It turns out that Chicken Pilau is a real favorite throughout the African continent, and for every different region, there’s a special combination of spices, textures and ingredients that make it taste just like home to the people who prepare it. Some Tanzanian-style Pilaus call for cooking in ghee, along with garam masala, and coconut milk. A Kenyan-style Pilau sautés its ginger, garlic, and cumin in oil, but adds no potatoes into the mix. From Zanzibar, one recipe includes potatoes, but also throws in a chopped apple and some raisins for sweetness. Some recipes add tomatoes, some leave them out. Peas, or green peppers, or yogurt might appear in – or disappear from – the dish, according to the region. Sometimes there is cinnamon and cardamon joining the spicy mix, sometimes it’s a big dash of hot chilies instead. There are some constants that are shared throughout these different versions of Pilau; it must have long grained rice, some juicy chicken thigh or leg meat stewed into it, and it needs lots and lots of those jammy-sweet, deeply browned onions!
His Imaginary Pilau Tasting Party set Musa up with a solid game plan for the needed times, temperatures, and how much of what needed to go into the pot just when, in order to get the results he was hungry for. The wide range of possible spice combinations and additions (potatoes and tomatoes definitely yes, but coconut milk or apples…. maybe not tonight?) hinted that he could be more flexible with the ingredients than he first supposed. Pilau seems to urge a little inspired improvisation, as the onions and garlic are chopped, and the spice packets come out of the cupboard. Being able to adapt this dish to what’s fresh, tasty, and most easily available is one reason it’s so popular across Africa. The delicious meal that results from giving simple ingredients a little time and space to cook together in ways that really bring out their best qualities is another. Here’s the Ugandan-style Pilau that Musa likes to cook up to warm himself and his friends and family on chilly days: Enjoy!