- What better way to celebrate the opening of a new photographic exhibition of African Ceremonies at Strathmore University than to celebrate one’s own.
- Sarah Mehrgut, head of languages in Strathmore’s School of Humanities and Social Science had been involved with the exhibition of photographs donated to the university by Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith.
What better way to celebrate the opening of a new photographic exhibition of African Ceremonies at Strathmore University than to celebrate one’s own.
Sarah Mehrgut, head of languages in Strathmore’s School of Humanities and Social Science had been involved with the exhibition of photographs donated to the university by Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith, authors of 17 books on Africa.
So it seemed fitting that she would provide the most essential feature of the celebrations. And that was the food.
Paella (pronounced ‘pay-ee’-ah’) could be described as a Spanish pilau since it’s a rice dish made with flavourful spices. But there are major differences between the making of paella and pilau.
“There are many different ways to make paella, depending on which part of Spain you come from,” says Sara as she pulls out a huge skillet-like pan fit for cooking a dish meant to serve a minimum of 10.
She suggests that paella originally came from Valencia, Spain. The variations include cooking it mainly with seafood, especially prawns and calamari, or mixing chicken and fish, or making this dish primarily with rabbit or pork.
Many Spaniards like to make paella with pork, but then they do not include fish since the tastes clash.
The choice of oils in which to cook the meat and a wide range of fresh vegetables is also a key difference in the cooking.
“In my [Spanish] home, we only made paella with olive oil, but the [official] recipe often uses both olive oil and sunflower oil,” says Sara.
Meanwhile, in other families, paella was only made with sunflower oil.
But what is most impressive about paella is the precision with which it is made. Sara says she rarely cooks paella in Kenya. But she remembers well what her grandmother taught her about how to heat the oil and then first cook the chicken breasts and drum sticks.
“Any part of the chicken will serve the purpose,” she says.
Once they are nearly fully cooked, she removes them, and then brings out the king prawns. She places them in the same oil used to fry the chicken.
“That’s because the flavour of the paella will blend all the ingredients to create the taste we love,” she adds.
As she watches the prawns cook, she tells BDLife that you can know when they are done because they change their shape into the curled letter ‘c’. “When they are overcooked, their shape turns into a zero,” she adds.
Now is the time for all the vegetables to get a quick fry. They include everything from onions, garlic, and bell peppers to cucumbers, French beans, and peas. And while those are cooking, Sara pulls out 2.5 litres of fish stock which she had prepared the night before.
“I cook the stock with bones from tilapia and sometimes with the fish heads,” she says.
But today, as there will be nearly 20 people at the celebration, she will make two batches of paella. Before she starts cooking the first kilo of rice with the fish stock, Sara adds the precious ingredient, the paella spice which she says she cannot find locally.
“I get it from friends whenever they go and come back from Spain,” she says.
“Saffron is one of the key ingredients of the paella spice. It’s the ingredient that gives the rice its warm yellow colour,” says Sara.
There is also some paprika. Most Spaniards are not big on hot spicy food.
Then after the rice cooks for 10 minutes, Sara adds all the meat, fish (apart from the prawns) and vegetables into the rice and mixes them all so they can cook evenly.
Letting this mix simmer for 10 more minutes, Sara then lets the savoury mixture cool before she pours this colourful blend into a sizeable bowl.
“We will decorate the top of the paella with the king prawns and sliced half a red bell pepper. They will add to the beauty of our national dish,” says Sara.