What are your favourite food smells? For me, you can’t get any better than veggies roasting over an open fire. The flavours of corn, aubergines, peppers and okra and onions are all heightened when you introduce them to flames. I have such precious memories of holidaying in Mombasa, melting away in the smell of fire-roasted maize on the cob, mohogo and sweet potatoes. These, combined with the lingering smell of hot coals, gasoline and frying potatoes in the salty, coastal air transports me to a happy place that’s almost as comforting as the welcoming warmth of my bed at home.
I’m lucky enough to have grown up with three cultures; British, Indian and Kenyan. I grew up in the 90s, lived in an all-white area and was forever told that my house/packed lunch/hair always “smells like curry” by my peers. If that wasn’t odd enough, I was also the only vegetarian at school (remember this was before “plant-based” and “vegan” diets were mainstream and instafamous). When my lunches weren’t cucumber sandwiches and crisps, they were eyeballed with a mixture of curiosity and fear. Ghee-cooked thepla, bateta nu shaak, dahi and samosas. Those lunches were always the most delicious. By the time I got to 15, I stopped giving a toss about what others thought, cooked shaak-rotli in my home ec classes and often came home empty handed because my friends had eaten it all. My parents were flabbergasted.
The self-conscious episodes of my youth have made me incredibly proud of my triple-cultured upbringing. Being a British Indian with East African roots is what’s made me who I am today. We ate the best, most varied meals and connected over food in the most wonderful way. Each meal was a talking point; it had a story and there were facts, techniques and anecdotes behind it. Even now, we talk about our favourite family dishes daily.
British sweetcorn is abundant at this time of year and we’ve eaten it in so many different ways over the past two weeks. Now although I could snaffle an entire cob of buttery, roasted corn every evening, I wanted to share something special with you.
My Makai Paka & Maharagwe Bhajiya is a stew-like dish of sweetcorn cooked in coconut milk with crispy, spicy kidney bean fritters on top. The bhajiya soak up some of the coconut milk like dumplings, yet still have a crispy, cragginess I adore. If you like Gujarati-style Kidney Beans & Sweetcorn nu Shaak, you will love this dish.
Makai Paka is a Kenyan speciality, most popular amongst the South Asian community but enjoyed by families all over and in restaurants. Other non-vegetarian varieties exist in the form of Kuku Paka (chicken) and Machli Paka (fish). The Makai Paka is vegan and usually incorporates large pieces of corn on the cob simmered in coconut milk but I wanted to create a version you need only a bowl and spoon to enjoy. Also, stripping the corn kernels off the cob after its been roasted is such a satisfying process.
The spices in this dish are simple, as with all East African dishes. Traditionally, you should let the ingredients do the talking and use spices sparingly to enhance them. The only rule is to balance sweet, salty, hot and sour, as is also the case with traditional Gujarati cooking.
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