Disclaimer: Possible trigger warning around death of a loved one. This entry is pretty personal, and maybe a wee bit sad. Feel free to run for the hills!
My memory is crap. Occasionally, a close friend will fondly bring up something from the past and sweetly ask, “Do you remember?” I’d try to sound nostalgic/excited whilst exclaiming “I would never forget!” but folks could tell by the vacant or worried look in my eyes that I did not, in fact, recall a damn thing. Someone could fabricate a narrative involving the most absurd characters and elements, insert me into it, and have me believe that the anecdote was truth. Suckaaaa! After an in-depth internal investigation, I’m loathe to announce that there is no substantive or reliable historical archive in this noggin of mine.
Though I can’t recall actual facts or occurrences with any semblance of accuracy, I do remember how I felt about certain people and moments, and I do that with great aptitude (read: I have lots of feelings). And nothing jogs these implicit emotional memories quite like food and their associated smells, which is probably why my adoration for cooking and eating is so severe.
My mother cooked a lot of Korean and non-Korean food when I was growing up. And for some reason, the dish I most associate with her is Paprika Chicken Stew over Jasmine Rice. When I was somewhere between the ages of 11 and 17 (you see how terrible this brain is?), she told me that she needed a great ‘sous-chef’ in order to cook this dish and I volunteered with intense enthusiasm. I had never cooked before, and it sure seemed like it would be fun to touch a dead bird, throw flour around the kitchen, and chop vegetables like a ninja. Mom was always kind and encouraging; she kept calling me the ‘sous-chef’, even though I was chronically using sugar in place of salt. In any case, this has long been my go-to dish when I seek comfort and love in my belly and soul, even though she is no longer here to cook it for me.
Meet mom. Look at this magnificent human being! She was, for a long time, my everything: my muse; my source of encouragement, self-love and strength; my friend. Nine years ago, she left this world for another, one she suspected was filled with infinite amounts of clay for a happy eternity of pottery-making. She was suddenly gone, and my memory did nothing to keep her close. It didn’t matter how tightly I squeezed my eyes shut – shortly after losing her to breast cancer, I couldn’t hold onto something as tangible as the sound and timbre of her voice. It didn’t matter whether I journaled or shared detailed stories with friends, because my reality had always been (and continues to be) inextricably linked to actively living and growing with something or someone. And without her by my side, my brain can not reconcile the cognitive dissonance associated with remembering someone who no longer exists, someone who is no longer real. Components of memories that are palpable for most people, like images, sounds, words, sequences of events, those were the pieces of her that dissipated, first.
So, I no longer drive myself crazy when I want to feel my mother’s presence. Instead of trying to bully myself into recounting images, sounds, words, and sequences of events, I cook or eat something that smells and tastes like a moment or a feeling. For a happy moment, I make Paprika Chicken. Not because I (probably inaccurately) remember the time she taught me to cook the dish, but because upon taking one bite, I can close my eyes and feel what it was like to be loved by her. The tenderness of the chicken in this recipe, the creaminess of the stew, the way in which the rice soaks up the fatty goodness, the fragrance of sauteed onion, garlic, and hot paprika, all of these elements help me to re-feel and re-experience how much I loved her and how much she loved me.
It’s taken me a few years to embrace my fallible and feelings-based memory, and to accept the fact that I will probably always have a contentious relationship with my brain when it comes to remembering the words, images, and sounds of those who molded my heart and soul. But I have learned to take solace in the mnemonic possibilities of food. For me, smells and tastes can magically conjure feelings of love, righteous indignation, anger, happiness, or camaraderie, and help me to acknowledge important people and moments in my life.
I really love making and eating stews – they are hearty and comforting, like a tight hug from a loving and flannel-clad lumberjack. Though some stews require a good amount of preparation, I find them to be easy to manage since they’re largely cooked in one pot. For obvious reasons, this one is a favorite of mine. Without further ado, here’s the recipe:
Paprika Chicken Stew
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 60 minutes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, for seasoning chicken
3 to 3 ½ lbs of bone-in chicken drumsticks and thighs
2 medium white onions, diced
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 green bell peppers, julienned
3 tablespoons of flour, to lightly dust the chicken
2 tablespoons of kosher salt
2 tablespoons of smoked paprika
½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ cups of water (or chicken stock for a heavier stew), plus more if needed
1 can of diced tomatoes, liquid drained
1 tablespoon of olive oil
2 tablespoons of butter
For thickening agent:
3 tablespoons of flour
¼ cup of water
½ cup of sour cream
2 cups of jasmine rice (also delicious served with egg noodles)
- Pat chicken dry with a paper towel to remove excess moisture. This will help to ensure that you brown your chicken with perfection!
- Liberally season the chicken with salt and pepper. Once seasoned, toss chicken in a large bowl and toss with three tablespoons of flour. Make sure each part of the drumsticks and thighs are lightly coated.
Dusting meat with flour before searing/browning is optional, but I use this technique whenever I eventually want a thicker sauce. Here’s a great article from The Reluctant Gourmet called Why Flour Meat Before Browning
- In a large dutch oven or a pot with a heavy bottom, heat olive oil on high heat for one minute. Shake off any excess flour, and place pieces of chicken in the pot, skin side down. Do not overcrowd. Leave the chicken for 5 minutes, until golden brown and crispy. Flip the meat and cook for another 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate, and continue with remaining drumsticks and thighs.
One thing that I’ve learned is not to tinker too much with the meat while it’s browning. The purpose of browning meat is two-fold: (1) to render excess fat; and (2) to beautifully caramelize the outside of your meat to maximize flavor. If you smell something starting to burn, turn the heat down to medium-high and adjust the piece of meat. Here’s a great article from The Kitchn on How to Sear Meat Properly.
- Discard all but 1 tablespoon of the fat rendered from the chicken and reduce heat to medium. Throw in 2 tablespoons of butter, add chopped onions and stir frequently for 2-3 minutes.The moisture from the cooking onions will grab some of those delicious brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pot.
- Add chopped garlic and cook/stir for another minute.
- Add paprika, cayenne pepper, salt, and freshly ground black pepper, and cook for another minute until the spices are very fragrant. Make sure to stir – burning the spices can lead to a bitter taste.
- Add can of diced tomatoes, water and gently stir. Return chicken drumsticks and thighs to pot. If there isn’t enough liquid to cover the chicken, add a little more. Once the stew comes to a gentle boil, lower the heat and cover the pot. Let it simmer for 45 minutes.
- While the stew is simmering, mix sour cream, flour, and water. Set aside for later use.
- Take the lid off the stew and add green bell peppers and the sour cream and flour mixture. Stir the pot. Cover and let it simmer for another 30 minutes. Taste and add salt based on your preferences.
- Meanwhile, cook jasmine rice as per package instructions.
- Put cooked rice into a bowl, place desired number of chicken pieces on top of rice, and ladle sauce over. Enjoy!