Friday, February 23, 2007

Coconut Chicken Curry (Kuku Paka) Recipe

I was recently at the opening night of a new exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. “Cézanne to Picasso” features paintings once owned or sold by Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), one of the most prominent art dealers of his generation. During the tour we saw a painting by Pierre Bonnard depicting one of Vollard’s famous dinner parties. These were consciously unglamorous affairs held in the dealer’s dank wine cellar.

Our tour guide mentioned that the sole dish served at these dinner parties was Vollard’s famous chicken curry, which seemed an unlikely recipe for a Parisian art dealer. Some time spent on Wikipedia revealed that Vollard, in fact, hailed from the island of La Réunion, a French overseas départment in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar. Reunion was first discovered by Arab sailors, then occupied by Portugal, and later claimed by France. The culture of the island seems to be a mixture of European, African, Indian and Chinese influences.

Despite my best Googling efforts, I was unable to locate a description or recipe for Vollard’s curry, but I wondered if it bore any resemblance to the coconut chicken curry that my mom recently taught me to make. We call this dish kuku paka – kuku is the Swahili word for chicken, but the etymology of paka is unclear. The dish is well-known on the coast of East Africa where me, my parents and grandparents were born (and where coconuts are abundant). It has become known beyond this region, largely due to the dispersal of the Ismaili community, which considers the curry to be one of its quintessential dishes.

Serves 4


1/2 pound medium potatoes
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken (or chicken breast) cut into about 10 pieces
4 teaspoons garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ginger, minced
1 large or 2 medium size onions, chopped
3 large tomatoes (important to get ones that are green or pale red), chopped
5 or 6 Anaheim green chilies (you can substitute 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes for 1 to 2 chilies
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
6 hard boiled eggs at room temperature, shelled
1/2 cup coconut milk
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 to 1/2 cup evaporated or fresh milk (optional)
cilantro for garnish


1. Peel and cut potatoes into quarters. Make sure all potato pieces are about the same size so that they boil at a similar rate. Boil until they are just starting to soften. Check frequently with a fork. Remove potatoes, plunge into cold water, and leave at room temperature.
2. In the same water (you can add more if needed), boil chicken pieces, half the garlic and all the ginger on medium high for 10-15 minutes, until just cooked. If chicken is still on the bone, cooking will take longer – drumsticks can take up to 30 minutes. Test for doneness by cutting the thickest piece – the chicken should have no pink color on the inside. Do not overcook. Remove chicken and let cool at room temperature. Save the cooking water.
3. In a blender or food processor puree onions, tomatoes, 1 or 2 chilies, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 cup of the cooking water. Be careful when cooking with chilies. You can always add more if necessary, but it is hard to make something less spicy once you have gone too far. Taste before adding more chilies.
4. Put this puree into a new pot and add the rest of the garlic and turmeric. Cook on medium low heat for three minutes. Add the remaining 4 whole chilies (do not slice them open).
5. Add coconut milk, 1/4 teaspoon salt and lemon juice. Stir.
6. Add the chicken and cook for five minutes. Taste the dish and add more chilies if necessary. If the dish is too spicy you may have to try some damage control. Go to this website for your options.
7. Add eggs and keep cooking until the mixture just begins to boil.
8. Immediately add potatoes and remove from the heat. Boiled potatoes are very fragile and will crumble if overcooked. If you make this in advance of serving it, leave the potatoes at room temperature and add when reheated and just before guests arrive.
9. Add 1/4 cup evaporated or fresh milk if you want a richer curry.
10. Garnish with chopped cilantro.

This dish is traditionally served with Basmati rice and/or garlic bread. To make garlic bread, make a paste of 1 tablespoon butter, 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon cumin, 1-2 tablespoons ready made cilantro chutney, salt (to taste) and chilies (to taste). Use a loaf of thick white bread (bigger than a baguette) and cut the bread into slices. Spread paste on both sides of each slice. Rearrange loaf and wrap well in foil. Bake at 250 F for 10-20 minutes, until warm but not crispy. Serve immediately.


Thierry said...

Sorry, but there was probably no coconut at all in Vollard's recipe. As I leave on Réunion, I know which is the correct one. It is described on the French Wikipédia:

cheese with a spoon said...

What an interesting post, Mr. Treataweek! I love the bit about Vollard's dinner parties. And Thierry, thanks for sharing the information on authentic Réunion-style curry! Very cool stuff.

Thought you and your readers would find this article interesting if you haven't seen it yet.

I once thought of doing a similar, but less historical, project, travelling around the world documenting Indian cuisine in all its modern incarnations..... But I think Madhur Jaffrey has already done that. Oh well.

AKR said...

Thanks Thierry for your comment. The Wiki link you provided didn't have a recipe, so I found a few on the internet (under "le carry poulet" or "le cari poulet"). They are in French:

B said...

but what is the website with suggestions for damage control?

thank you M. Treetaweek!

Anonymous said...


I just came across the above recipe with an explantion (23 Feb 07), and thought you might like to know that paka means to smear or apply.

My family had a lot of swahili friends, and during Ramadhan, we used to receive all kinds of goodies, and even an opportunity of watching the dishes being cooked. The chicken or the fish, was at first cooked and then smeared with the sauce and broiled on charcoal, very slowly, this was repeated several times before serving. (the dish is also called chicken (or fish) wa kupaka.

Its the first time I have come across your website, and must say, I enjoyed reading it.

Regards, Zizi

Dreama said...

Interesting to know.

Anonymous said...

On the name. Kuku is definitely swahili for chicken. 'Paka' means different things in the many languages that meet on the Swahili coast. In swahili it means kitten so this is not the likely meaning. The best meaning probably comes from the Indian languages - Gujrati or Hindi where it means (in slang) as 'perfect', 'ripe' or 'spot-on'.

If you've ever had Kuku Paka made well (preferably by an Ismaili from East Africa, especially a Zanzibari), you'll agree - it is *the* perfect chicken curry.

Thank you, Ismailis, for one more great contribution to civilization.

Anonymous said...

Hey! I am new to this site...i am always looking for swahili and indian recipes that are actually different due to the east african influence...finally i have found a website with these recipes! thankyou!
I am actually from Kenya...the coast - Mombasa - the dreamy beach city where all these wonderful foods are made!

I would have to agree with Zizi's analysis - kuku paka, or samaki wa kupaka is so because u 'paka' or 'apply' the coconut onto the fish - and with chicken well...i guess because the coconut figures, it is coated with it and so the 'paka' term is used as well.

I have to try all these recipes! i have been noting them down like crazy! I have learnt many from my mum...but its always nice to see different variations.
Thanks again!!

Salim said...

Yeah, I am from Tanzania and speak Swahili as well. This dish is actually calLed "Kuku ya kupaka"... But our Ismaili ladies (mummy) never managed to grasp the full phrases of any Swahili so they shortened it to Kuku Paka