Modern amenities may have replaced it, but for East Africans, the jiko—a charcoal stove that I’ve seen in varying sizes—continues to fuel food culture.
We all have grandmothers who squatted beside the jiko’s dim charcoal fire, fiddling with the air catch, poking the charcoal, fanning it with a cardboard scrap. The smell of charcoal smoke is infused in the rotli and chapati, and all manner of open-flame flat bread that migrated to East Africa from the Indian subcontinent along with its inhabitants. The jiko’s distinctive smell meanders into the foggy, frigid nights during the months of July and August. And over the streets, where makeshift versions are used to roast and char maize (and served rubbed lightly with a halved lime loaded with a mixture of salt and red chili powder), to grill meat, to boil water for uji and ugali.
Perhaps it was because I grew up in a vegetarian household so removed from urban Nairobi, that I never saw a working tandoor oven until I was an adult. My first encounter with chicken tikka was a long time ago, but I recall its charred bits and smokey characteristic. This, I’ve since noticed, sets it apart from murgh tikka, which is India’s quintessential contribution to the dish of chicken bits marinated in yogurt and an assortment of spices, and roasted for a flash in a searing tandoor oven.
My husband, Ships, conscientious though he may be about a recipe’s authenticity, has adapted the recipe for his grill. Keeping with East African tradition, he sticks to leg quarters. Another part of it calls for removing the dairy element of the marination process, so that the fresh aromatics—garlic, ginger, and green chilis—merge with the ground spices—roasted cumin and coriander, red chili powder, garam masala, salt, and black pepper—to form a crust around the dark meat and help keep it moist.
The adapted recipe is a certain keeper that gets played often around here.