The Heart of Yassa

Many moons ago a few friends and I tried a Senegalese restaurant for dinner.  It was in a part of town that I had frequented many times before, but I had never noticed it.  On a quiet street, its dusty glass door revealed a set of paint-chipped stairs, which carried us up to a simply furnished, dark dining room.  It was a weeknight, and we were the only guests the whole time we sat there.  Our food mysteriously took almost an hour to be served – perhaps they had to run out and get ingredients?!  I remember us coming up with multiple theories.  Anyhow, the time given allowed us to enjoy eachother’s company, and it turned out to be well worth the wait – the food was very excellent and different from all I had eaten before.  Three of us had a peanut butter based chicken dish with a side of rice or fufu (the Senegalese version of Italian polenta), but the fourth branched out and ordered Chicken Yassa.  What arrived was meat that fell off the bone, delicately flavoured with lemon, savoured best with flecks of rice stuck to its tender bites.

Years later I would stumble upon a history-cum-recipe book about colonial cooking that had a recipe for the Yassa of mention.  Yearnings for meals past would ensue, but laziness and distraction would conquer.

Of course when I finally decided to try cooking it, the book was sitting, naturally, on a shelf in another city.

Rifling through the files of the virtual world I surmised that the essential nature of the Yassa in its most basic form required a marinade of onions, lemon juice and chilies.  

I don’t know if my Chicken Yassa is an authentic one, but it was a satisfying and nourishing dinner, in more ways than one.  I doubt I will ever be able to walk up those rickety stairs again, except in my memory.

Chicken Yassa
for 2

3-4 pieces of chicken thigh or drumstick, bone-on and skin-on
juice of 2 lemons
1 small white onion, sliced into half moons
1 chile of your choice, minced, or a smear of chile paste
2 cloves garlic
2 cups instant white rice, uncooked
5 very small carrots
a handful of the green tops of the carrots, minced

First, the marinade: mix together the chicken with the lemon juice, onions and chile.  Let it sit for two hours at room temperature.  If life gets in the way and it must sit longer, keep it in the fridge.

Heat some peanut or sunflower oil in a saute pan and sear the chicken on both sides.  There will be immense sputtering due to the marinade, so watch out!  Remove the chicken from the pan and add the onions from the marinade and the garlic.  Cook until the onions start to soften, and add the carrots.  Cook for a couple minutes longer, stirring occasionally.  Stir in the rice, the carrot tops, and then arrange the chicken in the pan.  Add the juices of the marinade and 2 cups of water, then bring to a boil.  Cover the pan and reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook for 5-10 minutes, until the rice is done (the chicken should be cooked through by now too).  Fluff the rice before serving.  The lemon flavour will have deepened, inducing some sighs of pleasure.  Eating this might remind you of the first meal you have when you arrive in a new city, and everything seems fresh and exciting, and yet being steeped in the act of satisfying hunger is deeply familiar and comforting, so that you feel instantly at home.

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