I recently had the opportunity to add a local delight to the list of new culinary adventures I’ve had while in Karamoja. I was invited to the home of a friend, Elizabeth, who offered to act as my teacher in learning how to make chapatis. Elizabeth is the husband of Kyalo, who you may remember from previous posts about clinic devotions, and works as a lab technician in the clinic.
Chapatis are basically a thick, greasy tortilla. You can buy them at every little town along the road to satisfy your hunger while traveling. They are often augmented with a fried egg wrapped inside (called a rolex!). I believe they were brought over originally by the Indian tradesmen and have since adapted themselves to the African taste, spreading throughout East Africa.
I arrived at her home at eleven in the morning to find her mopping the floor in hopes of cooling off the inside of her home with the evaporating water. This is our local air conditioning! We chatted for a bit and then proceeded to the cooking!
She pulled a basin off the shelf and began measuring the various ingredients to add: 1 mug of warm water, 1 small spoon of salt, 1 large spoon of sugar. Stir until dissolved. Then add flour until it feels just right (classic!). Knead the dough into a ball until smooth, then add 2 large spoonfuls of oil. Continue to knead until the oil is absorbed.
As we worked, we chatted about her sisters back in Kenya, one of which just had a baby. She told me about her memories of when she was a child and when her mother was teaching her how to make chapatis. They were a staple in her home then and are still served when she returns to visit. The conversation flowed freely as we pinched the dough into balls and then began flattening them on the tabletop with a single-piece rolling pin. She told of how her sister always noted at this stage that, “We aren’t eating the shape!”, in other words, “It’s ok if your ball isn’t round and the flattened chapati is more blob than circle.” I’m still working on that phase, but apparently I have her sister as good company!
The next phase was wholly new to me. Once flattened into a circle, sprinkle the dough with additional oil. Then make one radial cut from the outside to the center of the circle and roll the dough onto itself making an ice-cream cone like shape. Once fully rolled, pinch the point of the cone into the center of the dough and flatten slightly into itself. Then you roll out the dough again into it’s final tortilla-like shape. I watched her fingers deftly shape the dough and tried to mimic with my own.
At this point in time, we set the dough aside to tend to the stove. The Karimojong mostly cook their food in pots balancing on three large rocks over a fire. Some are intrepid enough to build a stand out of clay with only one small opening for wood. Another method, which was the one we used, is a small metal stove about 18 inches tall that you fill with coals. This contraption is called a sigiri. Elizabeth verified that her sigiri was lit, added some coals and then fanned them in order to ensure the fire was raging. We brought the small stove into the house and placed a heavy skillet on top. Once it was hot enough, we sprinkled the skillet with oil and plopped the first chapati into the oil. She showed me how to rotate it quickly with my fingers, sprinkle additional oil on the other side and then flip once the bottom side had browned slightly. I was put in charge of oiling and flipping the cooking chapatis.
She brought a low stool for me while we continued to chat as she rolled out the dough and I flipped. I remarked on the long process which instigated a conversation about the struggles of being a working mother. Elizabeth and Kyalo have both worked at the clinic since their children were young. Elizabeth had hired one girl after another from her home town in Kenya to come live with them and take care of the children and household chores. She lamented about how difficult it was to keep help for long in rural Karamoja. As the children grew, she gave up hiring a house girl and tried instead to pay a local to help with chores like washing their laundry, only to find that the laundress was stealing their clothes in the process. She soon decided that it was not worth the trouble. Since that time she has not had regular help watching her children nor with the chores. Thankfully, their home is only a few yards away from the clinic and children visits to work are allowed!
After finishing frying the last chapatis (I didn’t burn any!), we sat down to lunch with the men. Elizabeth had already prepared a Kenyan meat and potato stew to go with the chapatis and chopped up a papaya they picked from a tree behind their home. Christopher and I spent the rest of the afternoon filling our bellies to bursting and enjoying the sweet fellowship of other Christians in a strange land.