Monday, July 13, 2009

The Contemporary Relic: Poulet Yassa

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A direct side effect of graduate education is something I like to refer to as "topic transference."

The theory, loosely defined and poorly proven, is that most graduate students tend to find their course of study relevant to any and every situation they encounter -- the ethicist considers principles of social conduct as they navigate snarled traffic on the highway, the composer listens to the music of conversations in a crowded room, and yes, the historian looks to find the influence of the past on a plate of chicken. Now, I'll admit, it may seem that this sort of extra-curricular analysis, taking place in spheres beyond the classroom, and upon topics unrelated to more carefully examined areas of scholarship, might prove beyond my expertise; overreaching is an all too common side-effect of the topic transference process.

And yet, when I eat this dish, when I cook it, when I consider it, I cannot ignore what it tells me. As with many stories, it is best to start at the beginning.

Senegal's fate has, quite often, not been of its own choosing. For the past thousand years, it has been contended over by internal forces, religious empires, and European colonists, alike, and from the mid-17th century until 1960, it was under the dominion of France; the French language is still the official language there. Although Senegal was no stranger to slavery before the emergence of French influence, the arrival of Louis XIV's troops developed the slave trade into a major industry there, countless slaves stolen from their homes, the island of Goree their last memory of Africa.

Poulet Yassa, as oxymoronic as it might sound, remains as a "contemporary relic" of the slavery era. This intersection of traditional African boiled stews, French mustard, and cheap onions is, in fact, a reminder of that moment of cultural destruction and sublimation, yet another imprint left by the boot of the French people, and those that facilitated them, including my own country, upon this colony. I look at the happy graduate students eating it in West Philadelphia's many West African restaurants, and I wonder - do they ever dedicate a moment's thought to what they're eating, to where it came from?

[Editor's Note: Senegal's cuisine is far from alone in this; the vast majority of diners who eat the Vietnamese soup phở, itself quite popular in my neighborhood, are unaware of its early 20th century origins as an invention to appease oppressive colonizers, a quickly assembled adaptation of pot-au-feu, the traditional French dish of boiled beef in spiced broth.]

So where does that leave us? For myself, as I make this recipe, I am aware of the irony of using refined sugar and other such ingredients so closely tied to colonization and the slavery trade. I leave behind any claim towards authenticity. I do not pretend to understand what it means to have to eat this, rather than to opt-in for a night of dining for fun. I cook Poulet Yassa in order to once again examine a recipe whose birth is associated with pain and oppression and struggle -- to reflect upon its past, to taste, to think, and yes, to eat.

Will I still arrange it awkwardly on a giant white plate for you at the end of the post? Yes, I will. But I hope you see past that.
Poulet Yassa
Serves 8

3 Pounds Chicken Thighs

6 medium-sized Yellow Onions
3 Tablespoons Tumeric
Kosher Salt
Plenty of Cracked Black Pepper
Olive Oil

32 oz Chicken Broth
1 head of Garlic (about 8 cloves)
3 Tablespoons Stone Ground Mustard
2 Tablespoons Dijon Mustard

2 Tablespoons Flour
1 Tablespoon Sweet Cream Butter, room temperature

Get a bag of onions and preheat your oven to 425 F.

Peeling away the outer layer, slice them across the grain (into rings) about 1" thick, or about the width of your ring finger.

Coat the slices well, and then dust with the tumeric (as seen at the top of this post), salt, and pepper, being sure to season both sides of each piece. Place the onion slices on a cookie sheet and throw them in the oven for twenty minutes.

Meanwhile, separate the cloves from a head of garlic, and, one at a time, smash them with the wide side of a large knife. Don't cut them up -- we want them mostly intact, but without skin.

Pour the 32 oz. of chicken stock into your pot (you want to use something that has a heavy lid, like a dutch oven), and toss your garlic in. Turn your burner up nice and high.

Once you're at a nice boil, turn the burner down to low, so that you just have a nice simmer.

Add the stone-ground and dijon mustards to the broth, and allow it to continue cooking.

At this point, it should be time to start cleaning your chicken thighs -- DO NOT TRY AND MAKE THIS WITH CHICKEN BREASTS. The thighs, by dint of being fattier, on the bone, and generally more forgiving (not to mention more affordable) are ideal for cooking this. I'm just telling you now -- only make this with white meat if you want a pot full of pencil erasers. Consider yourself warned.

Start by pulling the skin away from the top. With your knife, slice away where it attaches to the meat of the breast.

Next, looking over to the other side, you should see a long thin strip of fat running down that side. Cut this off as well (these trimmings make excellent chicken stock or schmaltz, incidentally).

See? Well-prepped, and healthier for you too.

Place your thighs into the hot broth, making sure the heat is as low as possible. Cover.

At this point, take your onions out and flip them over, returning them to the oven for an additional 15-20 minutes, or until they are nice and brown (but not dried out and burnt).

When they're done, they should look something like this:

Place the grilled onions into the pot and cover once more, cooking an additional 20 minutes.

Finally, remove the lid, and prepare the roux with your flour and room-temperature butter.

Whisk it in to avoid clumps, and raise the heat slowly, cooking until the sauce thickens.

From here, your choice of presentation is yours -- some people like diced parsley or cilantro; I myself enjoy chopped chives on top. You can choose to serve it with the sauce on the plate or on a separate dish, being sure to provide rice or a French baguette to soak everything up. The final shots:

Do I fully understand what I'm doing when I make this dish? I don't think so. But if it reminds me to be conscientious about the history of all the things I eat. If it reminds any of you to do the same -- then perhaps this post has been for the best.

We'll be back next weekend with another post; see you then.

Video: World Cup 2002 -- "Senegal vs. France"

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