x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

1,001 Arabian Bites: Stick to a plan, even when it's far too simple

My sister's chicken paprikash wasn't complicated, which is what made me suspicious.

Wow." My mouth was full, so I wasn't sure my sister had heard me. I swallowed and tried again. "Wow. This is so good it deserves its own ashram, or at least an altar of some kind. Or at the very least an app." I shovelled in another spoonful. "This is so good, really. How do you make it?"

What my sister proceeded to describe was a recipe so unsettling in its simplicity that I would never have believed it if I hadn't witnessed a demo myself the next day. I'd eaten chicken paprikash in its birthplace, Hungary, and liked it: chicken thighs swathed in a creamy, tangy sauce thickened with buttery onions, sour cream and a red-flecked roux, typically served with dumplings. But no version I'd tasted had ever come close to my sister's, which was adapted from a recipe she'd found online.

Certain that she had forgotten a step, I asked her to repeat the directions. "You skin and debone a whole chicken, then cut the meat into bite-sized chunks, like you would for kebabs," she holds up her fingers and pinches an invisible chunk of meat, approximately four centimeters long. "Then you sauté some chopped onions in oil, add the chicken and a few spoonfuls of paprika, salt it, and let that stew over low heat." She pauses for me while I scribble it all down. "After about 20 minutes, when the chicken's cooked through, add a cup of water and about a half cup of cooking cream, more or less."

"Then what?" I asked.

"Then that's it. We like it over rice pilaf with chopped green onion on top."

Thirty-minute meals have always impressed me as more of a calorie delivery system than a rewarding pursuit. They seem like the ultimate euphemism in a place where dread meets necessity, and where the eatability of a dish is always considered relative to the amount of time and effort invested: "You know, this isn't half bad for a 10-minute lasagne." With recipes designed for ease and speed, I've found it's best to keep expectations low.

Because I'm automatically suspicious of any recipe that doesn't elicit mild anxiety, I struggled with the paltry five-ingredient shopping list for paprikash. Why try to fix something that isn't broken? Leave it to me to turn a 30-minute meal into a two-hour ordeal.

For starters, I can't stand white meat, so my paprikash was all-dark. To avoid using stale paprika, I sought out the bulk spice section with the highest turnover. I coated the seasoned chicken with paprika before cooking so the flavours would permeate the meat. I added thinly sliced red Fresno peppers to the onions while they melted - in butter instead of oil. Rather than stew the chicken in a wet pan full of softened onions, it was braised with the onions after a quick dry sear. The water was replaced with chicken stock, and the UHT cream with crème fraiche. A handful of chopped parsley was stirred in at the end. And because I'm not a huge rice eater, I served the whole mess over buttered egg noodles.

It was good.

But it wasn't nearly as good as my sister's.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who lives and cooks in New Mexico

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