Curiosity sends Winnie Wangui into the industrial size kitchen at InterContinental Nairobi, where Executive Chef Simon Wanjau lets her into the secret of his smoking cabinet
Since the dawn of our time, humans have smoked meat. Originally this was done as a way of keeping away flies, but eventually someone realised that the smoke acted a preservative which extended the shelf life of their meat and fish. So it was, that a tradition that was popular throughout Europe and much of the Northern hemisphere during the Middle Ages, was reborn in the modern era as a cooking methodology prized not because of its preserving properties, but for the amazing layers of flavour that smoking can impart to food. Today it is no longer just fish and meat that are smoked but anything from fruit, to vegetables and cheeses.
Smoked foods have recently and discretely begun popping up in Nairobi restaurants. A smoked whipped cream here, a beef brisket there, but nothing to indicate we are at the full blown trend stage yet. With that in mind, I was recently surprised to discover during the course of a business lunch at The Terrace restaurant in the InterContinental Hotel, that the chicken in my chicken and mango salad had a unmistakably smoky flavour.
Intrigued, I began to question Simon Wanjau, the Executive Chef for both of the Intercontinental Restaurants, who was happy to invite me back for a complete visit of his kitchen and smoking contraption. Fast forward a week and I am being handed a white coat and hairnet and instructed to remove all forms of jewellery before crossing the yellow line which marks where the kitchen starts.
The smoker is a small iron cabinet with two sections inside. “We remodelled one of our room service trolley temperature warmers into this culinary masterpiece which we use to smoke chicken, salmon, tilapia, vegetables and even beef,” mentions Chef Simon, who has been at InterContinental Nairobi for six years now. “We resorted to remodelling it,” he continues, “because it was already retaining temperatures for long periods of time and importing a smoker would have been too expensive”.
On the metal countertop sit two pieces of chicken breast in separate bowls. One, the chef explains, has already been smoked but is not ready for consumption, while the other, has been smoked and boiled in a spiced orange and mango juice, and is now ready to serve. I ask Chef Simon what exactly smoking a chicken consists in and he replies: “Watch”.
Chef Simon’s assistant brings a tray filled with oak chips, covered in aluminium foil and inserts it in the bottom part of the smoker. The raw marinated chicken breast is then placed on the top shelf. “For best results”, says Chef Simon, “it is always advisable to use chicken that has not been refrigerated. All you need to do is debone the chicken breast, marinate it with cumin, fennel, orange pulp, brown sugar, sea salt, and pepper and let it rest for 24 hours. After that, drain the excess marinade and toss it in the smoker for 6 to 8 hours.”
By this time, tendrils of white smoke are seeping out of the edges of the smoker. When the door is partly opened, a thick cloud comes pouring out. While the chicken is left inside to cook, Chef gives us a taste of the smoked chicken before it is boiled. The small piece fills my mouth with bitterness, I can’t help but cringe. “That is why we boil it in the juice,” explains Chef Simon, “to tone down the excess bitterness from the smoke.”
Chef Simon tells me that he recently got to show off his smoked chicken at one of the prized fine dining Chaîne des Rôtisseurs meals. Despite the challenge of putting it all together, he tells me his mango and smoked chicken timbale got a standing ovation, something he isn’t going to forget any time soon.