This dish, Kuku Paka (coo-coo pok-ah), is the product of centuries of immigrants passing through Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa. While diners along the coast were enjoying their fresh seafood and plates of creamy-soft Kuku Paka, one tribe in the Kenyan mountains was putting Kenya on the world map.
In the 2013 Berlin Marathon, Kenyan Wilson Kipsang of the Kenjin tribe won by posting the fastest marathon ever recorded at the time. But what was even more impressive was the next 4 runners to finish were all Kenyan. Not to be outdone by their brothers, the Kenyan women finished first, second, and fourth!
Sports physiologists, anthropologists, geneticists, distance runners, coaches, and sports fans have theorized how this tiny Kenyan minority can dominate the world’s best distance runners since the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when an unknown Kenyan Kip Keino came out of nowhere to defeat the world-record holder in the 1500 meters, USA’s Jim Ryun. Not only did Kip Keino beat the heavily favored American, but did so against doctors’ orders to not run at all. He had an incredibly painful gallbladder infection that hurts most when breathing hard when running. Keino not only won the gold medal, but set an Olympic record in the process.
How did he push through so much pain? How has a single group of runners from Kenya produce many of world’s best male and female distance runners for decades? Scientists, sports physiologists and phycologists, fans, and even geneticists have debated this ad infinitum. A perfect storm of all these factors as well as a tribal initiation ritual all seemingly played a role. Some of the more fascinating theories are:
High Altitude – As elite athletes acclimate to high altitude, they acquire more red blood cells which allows their blood to carry more oxygen. When they compete at lower altitudes, they get a natural boost to the muscles when additional oxygen is available. This blood expanding effect can enhance performance in elite athletes.
High starch diet – Diet also plays an important part. Like other pastoralists, Kalenjins consume a great deal of meat and milk, which provide the body with high-energy carbohydrates as well as bone-building calcium. The Kalenjin find grass for their animals in the lowlands and have to climb many hills to get home.
Mental toughness – Of all the theories on why the Kalenjin runners are so superior, the one that explains how this one tribe can be so dominant: pain training. How was it possible for Kip Keino to push through incredible pain to set an Olympic record?
The answer to that question for Keino and the other Kalenjin runners lies in the tribe’s initiation ceremony. They all must practice long and hard for the rite of passage ceremony that is all about enduring pain. One must remain stoic and unflinching as they must crawl naked through a tunnel of African stinging Nettles, beaten on the ankles and knuckles and then have the acid from the stinging Nettles rubbed onto their genitals. All that is just a warm-up, the young boys and girls are awoken early in the morning and circumcised with a sharp stick. Twitch or grimace and you get labeled a kebitet (a coward) and forever be stigmatized by the whole community.
When all is said and done, all these factors contribute to the Kanejin’s success but it makes a lot of sense that the tribe’s initiation ceremony is probably the main reason they dominate a sport where “pushing through pain” is so fundamental to success.
Kuku Paka -Kenyan Chicken in Coconut Sauce
- Frying pan with cover
- Large bowl
- Food Processor or blender
- Grill (or large heavy skillet)
- 4 lb Chicken, leg section
- 3 medium Plum tomatoes
- 4 medium Serrano or jalapeno chiles, stemmed and seeded
- 4 cloves Garlic, peeled
- 1 medium White onion, peeled and quartered
- 1 inch Ginger root, peeled
- 2 tsp Ground cumin
- 1 tsp Ground coriander
- 2 tsp Kosher salt
- 2 tbsp Coconut oil (opt. Vegetable oil)
- 28 oz Coconut milk
- 1 large Lemon, juiced
- 2 tbsp Cilantro leaves, chopped
- Boiled white rice, roti, or chapati
- Preparing Chicken – Score each piece of chicken with a few diagonal slashes, about ½ inch into meat. In a food processor or blender, combine onion, ginger, tomato, garlic, chili, salt, cumin and coriander. Process into a rough paste. Rub 1 cup of paste all over the chicken pieces. Save remaining paste. Marinate chicken in refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 8.
- Prepare Sauce – Heat oil over medium heat. Add remaining paste and stir until liquid evaporates and oil separates out, around 15 minutes. Continue about 5 minutes more to get the paste to turn a deep brown, stirring constantly to not to burn it. Add coconut milk and simmer sauce until it gets as thick as cake batter and turns slightly orange, about 20 minutes. Turn off heat.
- Finish Chicken – Heat grill or a heavy skillet over medium-high heat as sauce finishes cooking. Grill chicken pieces until the skin is browned and meat is cooked through. Add the chicken to the sauce, adding a little water if sauce is too thick to coat all the meat. Reduce heat to low and cook another 5 minutes, covered. To serve, season with salt and lemon juice. Garnish with cilantro and serve with rice, chapati or roti.