Via his two boys my son gave me a copy of one of The Big Issue magazines, which I confess I never buy. Anyway I flicked through it and came to a page from what is obviously a regular feature series Tastes Like Home. And this is the photograph I was confronted with.
My first reaction was how boring is that? It's just chicken and rice, and so it is - Kotopoulo me rizi in Greek. Being The Big Issue it was accompanied by a heart-warming, even heart breaking story of a Greek grandma - a Yiayia - who made this dish for two young men - Luke and Daniel Mancuso - who had recently lost their mother to their father's domestic violence, and were fed and comforted by the grandma next door. This is the first dish she made for them. And so, like most of our favourite foods, it is more than the food itself.
Yiayia went on to make many more meals for them and eventually the boys/young men produced a cookbook, and videos of all of her dishes, called Yiayia next door: Recipes from Yiayia's kitchen, and the true story of one woman's incredible act of kindness. Indira Naidoo spoke with them and you can listen to the ABC program to hear more of their story.
But back to the recipe which I read through, because I was a tiny bit intrigued. It had just six ingredients - chicken, rice, onion, olive oil and salt and pepper - three really because the oil and salt and pepper don't really count do they? Apart from being essential that is. The first step was to boil the chicken which didn't endear me any further to the recipe I have to say. I mean, no fussing just wipe the chicken and boil it, skimming off any scum. Then you take out the chicken and keep the stock. Mix some rice, onions and some of the stock in a baking tray, and cook in the oven for 30 minutes. Add the chicken and cook for another 15 minutes. Done. As I said, my first reaction was scorn. Well perhaps not scorn, but scepticism at least, in spite of the apparent accolades. Then I thought about it some more and wondered whether this is in fact the ultimate comfort food. After all rice cooked in chicken stock would be tasty, and poached chicken is pretty nice too. But it's a tiny bit bleak and minimalist is it not? Not brown food, but beige food, which is almost as bad.
Anyway I decided to look into this. Is it indeed a classic Greek dish? Well yes, although Wikipedia hasn't caught up with it. Going on the number of actual Greek recipes for it there are online. Mind you it's not always quite as simple, and in fact, if you look at the video that accompanies the story on The Big Issue website and which you can watch below you will see that Yiayia herself has slightly upgraded it by cooking the chicken in the oven first rather than by poaching. Nice as this might sound I actually think the poaching idea is actually better. Interesting isn't it how we change things every time we cook a dish we cook on a regular basis?
Back to my internet exploration though. When I fed in the Greek name, I of course, came up with a whole heap of versions in Greek. which I cannot read. However I have to say that the majority looked similar and had a similarly brief list of ingredients. That's all I could glean from them - what they looked like and how many ingredients there are.
However, if you check out English versions which I found by searching for Greek chicken and rice I found a whole list of slightly more complicated versions, most of which in true Greek style included oregano, garlic and lemon in one way or another, and which, more usually fried off the chicken before adding to the rice. Some of them put feta on top as well.
Of all these, I think the one from Recipe Tin Eats looks the most tempting, and even though she says this is not an 'authentic' Greek dish, its' pretty much what you would expect I think. Nagi Maehashi - the author of this recipe and the whole website of course, maintains that it's the rice that makes this dish because:
"it’s like cooking the rice in triple strength chicken stock because the chicken is cooked ON TOP of the rice. So it gets the full benefit of all the juices from the chicken seeping into it while it cooks."
I was initially confused because her photograph of the dish, which clearly shows pretty charred lemon slices are not in the actual recipe - or the video - see below. But as always she has pretty expansive notes which include her saying that she fried off the slices in the fat from the chicken to garnish the dish at the end. I think I would give her full marks on this one, not just for the recipe itself but also for covering just about all the questions you might ask.
I don't have nearly as vast a collection of Greek cookbooks as Italian, but I did check out what I have and not one of them had a version of this dish. So why would a genuine Greek lady make this as the first dish she made for that traumatised pair of young men to comfort them? I think it's because it's just one of those dishes that we probably all have in our repertoire - something so stupidly easy and so stupidly good, that we think it's not worth passing on. I have thought about my own cooking heritage, and think perhaps my mother's rabbit stew might fall into that category - rabbit, vegetables, water - cook. That's all there is to it but I loved it as a child. I think it might have been my favourite dish - although there were many of them. Poor man's food - la povera cucina - which is so fashionable today. Rabbit stew hasn't made it into that particular pantheon as yet either.
There are, of course, endless variations from every cuisine in the world on this dish. Most of them much more complicated, although some are not. Indeed when you come to think about it the version from The Big Issue, is not amazingly Greek either. There is nothing specifically Greek about it, other than the plainness. I always think that Greek food is so simple that you almost wouldn't bother - until you taste it that is. Too simple to impress though. I guess it would fall into the kind of food that demands excellent ingredients because they are not covered up by anything else. Which in this case I think would mean top grade chicken and with the bone in and skin on. And incidentally that seems to be creeping back on to the supermarket shelves after quite an absence.
To conclude I also learnt something about chickens today. You might think that we have been eating chickens forever. Not so it seems. Not until around 1500BC in fact.
Recent archaeological evidence - carbon dating - suggests that prior to that time wild chickens may have been kept for prestige reasons - well look at how beautiful they are - worshipped even, but not domesticated. They come from the jungles of South-East Asia, and researchers now think that they came down from their homes in the trees to eat the rice which was being grown down on the ground. Once they began coming down from the trees, they began to be domesticated and gradually they spread around the world, so that now they are eaten everywhere, in their trillions. They are the most popular meat that we eat. Indeed we had some yesterday - with rice - but cooked separately. It was a made up curry which was eaten with gusto by my two grandsons. So chicken and rice go back a long way but not as far back as roast lamb - or goat.
A friend ours used to joke that I had a thousand and one ways with chicken. Well I think there are at least a thousand and one ways with just chicken and rice as well. But I won't go there today.