Cheap Eats:
Yassa au Poulet
  (Marinated Chicken Braised in Lemon-Onion Sauce)

I think that Christopher Columbus said it best. When he wrote about his first experience with the New World delicacy, chile peppers, he described them as "violent fruit."

Well, perhaps they were violent, but they were almost instantly popular. The use of chilies sped around the world, even while Europeans held the chile's close relatives, tomatoes and potatoes, at arm's length, worried about their safety. In fact, chiles moved around the world so swiftly, and were adopted so absolutely into local cuisines, that before long, people were thinking of chiles as "native" to any new home they had found. Indeed, who can imagine the cuisines of India, Africa, Asia, or even much of Europe without some form of chile pepper.

But, as much as it seems at home elsewhere, the colorful, varied genus of fruit known as Capsicum began in South America. Fossil evidence shows that wild chiles were being consumed in Brazil and Peru by around 6500 BC, and there are indications that the chile had been domesticated by 2500 BC Chiles were the primary seasoning of the Incas and then the Aztecs.

Travel didn't wait for Columbus. Chiles were on the move early, arriving in Tenochtitlán in Mexico as tribute from conquered peoples. This fiery fruit continued heading north, into what is now the southwestern United States, where it became very popular among the Pueblo Indians, who still favor green chile stew.

What we call this fruit has always been something of a mess. Chile, chilli, and chili can all mean the same thing: capsicum. However, chili usually means mixed chili powder or the spiced stew made with chili powder. Chilies usually means hot peppers. Chilli probably means you're reading an Indian recipe that uses hot chilies, since Indian recipes seem to be the only place one regularly sees this spelling. Oddly, however, chilli is the original Nahuatl word. Chile is the Spanish form of the Nahuatl chilli. Sweet peppers are also capsicums, but are usually not called chilies in English, though they are chiles in Spanish.

In Central and South America, the hot peppers are called ají, which the Spanish picked up from the Arawak axi. Pepper became part of the confusion because the Spaniards called their new discovery pimiento, which was the same name used for black pepper. Part of this may have been because they thought they were in India, and part of it was probably because pepper was the only other "hot" food they could think of.

There are hundreds of species of chile, with great variations in size and color, but even greater variations in heat. The heat is produced by a substance called capsaicin. Ironically, the heat is a defense mechanism, designed to keep animals from destroying the plants. That's why it works in those self-defense sprays. Also ironically, though capsaicin causes pain, it is also a useful pain killer in certain applications. Most (though not all) of the capsaicin is in the seeds and white membrane inside the chile, so removing these can subdue the heat, if you're trying to keep the flavor but tone down the pungency.

Interestingly, the heat can be objectively measured—you may get accustomed to the heat, but the actual amount of heat present is dependent on the chile, not on the consumer. Growers and dealers generally rate chiles on a scale that ranges from 1 to 120. Sweet peppers are one. Jalapeños are 15. At the extreme end of the range, you have such torrid chiles as habeñero and Scotch bonnet, which are among the hottest chiles in the world.

While you don't have to worry about sweet peppers, some care needs to be taken with the hotter members of the family. Never touch your face, especially not your eyes, when you're cutting chiles. With hotter peppers, it is wise to wear rubber gloves, since the really hot chiles can actually raise blisters on tender skin. I usually don't worry about gloves with jalapeños, though I'm still careful to wash my hands and cutting board thoroughly after cutting them, but serranos are hotter, and for them, the gloves come out. Also, when you wash chiles, wash them in cold water. Heat causes the capsaicin to vaporize, and it can leave you gasping if you breathe it (trust me—I've done it, and you don't want to).

Serranos are more flavorful than jalapeños, so they are worth the trouble. On a restaurant scale of 1 to 4 stars, this recipe would probably clock in at around one star—zippy but not painful. You could use milder peppers, if you really can't stand the heat (a couple of jalapeños, seeded, would be quite mild with such long cooking), or you might try hotter, if you wish. Serranos are hot enough for my tastes, and add a nice flavor to this delightful dish. Yassa au Poulet comes from Senegal, West Africa. It is usually served with hot, boiled white rice.

Yassa au Poulet
(Marinated Chicken Braised in Lemon-Onion Sauce)

2 large onions, finely chopped

2 Tbs. finely chopped garlic

2 serrano chiles, finely chopped

½ tsp. ground ginger

1 tsp. ground black pepper

1 Tbs. salt

1 cup lemon juice

1¼ cups water

6 Tbs. peanut oil

2½- to 3-pound chicken, cut up

In a shallow glass or enameled baking dish large enough to hold the chicken comfortably, combine the onions, garlic, chiles, pepper, and salt. Pour in the lemon juice, 1 cup water, and 2 tablespoons of the oil. Mix well. Add the chicken and turn it about in the marinade until pieces are evenly coated. Marinate in the refrigerator at least 4 hours (24 hours preferable), turning the pieces occasionally.

Heat the remaining 4 tablespoons of oil in a heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet until hot. Remove the chicken from the marinade and pat the pieces dry with paper towels (reserving the marinade). Brown the chicken in the hot oil a few pieces at a time, starting them skin side down and turning frequently. As the chicken pieces brown, transfer them to a plate.

Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of oil from the skillet and remove it from the heat. Strain the marinade over a bowl, pressing the vegetables gently to remove excess liquid. Heat the remaining oil in the skillet and add all the veggies in the sieve to the oil. Stir and scrape in any brown pieces from cooking the chicken, and cook for about 5 minutes, until the onions are soft and beginning to color lightly. Be careful not to burn.

Return the chicken and any liquid that has accumulated around it to the skillet, and add ½ cup of the strained marinade (stir before measuring, since the spices will have sunk to the bottom of the bowl) and ¼ cup water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover the pan, and simmer for about 25 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.

Serve at once, with rice. (Pretty darn good cold the next day, too, however.)

Serves 4.

Back to Cheap Eats Introduction
Conversion Tables

Home Join Contact Members