“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” -George Bernard Shaw
I’m fairly certain I learned to cook before I learned to ride a bike. I recall being as young as five when I’d push an old wooden dining chair up to the stove where my mother was simmering and sautéing away. I’d peer into pots and pans filled with steaming rice, boiled cassava and plantain, shrimp or chicken in bubbling coconut milk. She’d explain to me why she removed the onions and vegetables from a pan before searing meat—to avoid them getting soggy. She’d show me how to add spice and flavor and taste as you go. You brown the meat like so, add in about this or that much—we never measured anything. And often she’d talk at length about growing up in Nicaragua.
My mother grew up in Puerto Cabezas a coastal town in northern Nicaragua. She and her siblings worked hard, often waking early to help their mother prepare meals for the day while my grandfather went off to work. Even at a young age I loved hearing about how she’d wake up at dawn to prepare dough for bread or pastries. I laughed at how they’d sneak bits of rice or meat from my grandfather’s portion of dinner until there was hardly anything left when he came home at he end of the day. I marveled over how they they killed their own chickens, and how my grandmother would crack open large coconuts with a machete to take out the flesh and water. I was fascinated by the food, the painstaking preparation, and the idea of waking when the brightest stars were still visible in the sky to begin the cooking for the day.
My grandmother was tireless it seemed to me. On top of being a nurse she would cook meals and baked goods to sell to the townspeople. My mother was one of seven children, and try as they might, none of them could ever fully escape the endless preparation of naca tamales, patty, guizadas, pies, fresh bread, and so on. People fell in love with my grandmother’s food. When she visited last November, well into her eighties and as feisty as ever, she was thrilled to hear that I too was cooking to make a living, though in a different way.
Growing up, it was almost a weekly ritual to have chicken or shrimp in coconut milk in my house. One we all looked forward to. The kitchen smelled rich and sweet and enabled me to pretend I was back in time, cooking in my grandmother’s house that sat on stilts, on a humid evening. Because I was a finicky little thing my mom would always make me a side of chicken—I wouldn’t eat shrimp. Often there would be a side of boiled green plantains and pinto beans. And most nights I’d stand on my chair, attentive and fascinated by how it all came together.
I’ve made it my goal this year to get more of the traditional and humble Nicaraguan dishes my mom prepared (still prepares) on this blog! So why not start with my favorite? Chicken in coconut milk is a rich, flavorful, comfort food dish that comes together easily. I even cooked it with the same wooden spoon my mom used all those years ago! Chicken (breast or thighs), onions and peppers, ginger and garlic, are all simmered in a fragrant coconut milk broth. We sweeten the sauce with a little brown sugar (I used coconut flower nectar), and you can serve it over white rice, with fresh cilantro and my family’s pepper sauce (more on that below).
As far as I know my grandmother had no Thai influences for this dish. Coconut milk was just readily available and used in many dishes she prepared. She would make this with shrimp, or even beef, and if you don’t eat meat I’m sure mushrooms and other veggies would work just as well! These days my mom adds yellow curry to her version while I prefer to add a splash of lime. We all love to add pepper sauce to the top, which is literally just onions, hot peppers of your choosing, and garlic cloves soaked in white vinegar with a little salt and sugar! It’s not so much a sauce as it’s pickled peppers, but it’s good on everything! Add everything to a mason jar and refrigerate—just make sure you let it mellow for a week or so before using.
I kept this version close to how my grandmother and mother first prepared it. Instead of green plantains I fried up some super ripe and sweet ones (my personal favorite). Let me know what you think below. What are your favorite family recipes?
Nicaraguan Chicken in Coconut Milk
Adapted from Noretta Anderson and Linda Carlson
- 2 Tbsp. Olive oil
- 2 cups sliced bell pepper (I used red, yellow, and green)
- 1 cup white onion, sliced or diced
- 6 cloves of garlic, minced (use less if you’re not into that)
- 3 chicken breasts (about 18oz)
- 2 ½ cups coconut milk
- ½ Habanero, halved