Chapati was my first love. In the spirit of delayed gratification or lack of trust in my new talent Mama kept me waiting quite a while before I had the long-awaited pass to her kitchen. In fact it is because she was unwell, but her heart really yearned for them and there was no other adult around that I actually had my first chapati entry. They were great. Not as great as the ones I now make but looking back, they actually turned out good enough for mama to take credit on how well she had taught me. Now at this point I would like to make you aware that mama did not entertain idlers when she was cooking. It did not matter if it was water she was boiling. Plus she did not want anyone looking at her saliva-eyed as she made her tasty soft chapos. Who would want to stick around her and have their taste buds tortured that long knowing pretty well the only time chapati would greet your tongue was at table anyway? Or when she felt like having company she would have us around, somehow though it would be to assemble the things she needed and midway through ask for the oil to be brought closer, or her hand prints wiped off the hot-pot cover, or for coal to be added to the jiko that had tired and was burning too low too slow among other minor but very tiring roles, whose reward was just stories to keep everyone awake long enough for the feast that followed. So no, much of my chapati magic prior to my first try was not learnt from mama.
Neither was it learnt from my elder sisters. They, just like mama hated a crowded kitchen. Or was it just our uncontrolled appetites and begging eyes? I can’t quite remember. They would not even give us the first chapo. You know the one that should not find its way into the depth of the hot-pot because it has one and only one role (Preparing the pan for the task ahead)? That one too they allowed to sit with the rest. They claimed they would have to eat the second themselves if they gave us the first. We had no problem with that, but they added that the aroma would make them unable to enjoy the meal with the rest afterwards for they would be full from the aroma and the half they had tasted. It is this selfishness that guided my calm wait in the sitting room.
There was an eatery. It was owned by one Mr. Anyande. The past and future of chapatis were made there. Not many knew him. I did not, but we all sang his praise. We KNEW his chapatis. They were made at the eatery’s entrance on the verandah. It was young muscled men who made them. There would be a long queue of customers waiting long before the young men finished kneading the dough. By the time the big pan was sitting nice on the huge jikos and the perfectly round, soft but not sticky dough was warming up to the heat that licked the pan from below, they young men’s foreheads were all shiny and their shirts seemed to stick to their backs. There were three stations. The one whose queue I loved to join because it moved faster and had clients going back and forth from one station to his, usually at this point would remove his shirt. He was very comfortable with his hairy armpits. He would make his chapos in his vest, I never could guess its original color but it did not matter. The end product made all his sins easily forgivable. Anyande’s Chapatis were so good. Mornings, lunchtime and late evenings were the worst of times to be sent there. The queues were unending. Some came along with back up so a family would have a representative on at least two lines just to be sure.
My chapati magic initial acquisition was at Anyande’s. We would buy breakfast chapos there on weekends. I would have to wake as early as if there was still school so I would be top five on the line. Here is where I watched flour meet salt, oil and warm water. Here is where I watched the sufficient kneading, the rolling, the oiling more rolling into shape and the actual cooking. These boys made it with such ease of precision. When the shhshshshsh dressed in the mouth-watering aroma, I had literally made the chapos with them and eaten at least two and a half in my heart. I stared in amazement at how they didn’t seem to burn when hand lay flat on the half-done chapo and later the hot ones. The wrapping guy as if on cue would come out, take our money and wrap the hot chapos. On days when he was too busy inside serving other clients, we would have to wait till the muscle men had made huge enough piles and the pans were too hot to continue in their states. They would remove the pans and pour cold water on them. I loved to watch it turn smoky white as the steam rose beautifully.
On several occasions angry mothers had come over, their scared children trying hard to hide their embarrassment in tow to complain to the wrapping guy about giving less chapati to their kids. The guy never made a mistake, his fingers knew how to count and pack hot chapatis with unrivaled precision. These hungry children were not strong enough to resist temptation the whole way home. The missing chapatis were already resting peacefully within them. That is one stunt I could never try. Do you know my mama? I countered the demon of desire to bite a little by running all the way back home for tea would be ready and waiting.
After my free pass into the kitchen, Mama invited me to watch her on all chapati Sundays. I became better every time. From her I learnt the art of soft dough. The secret to soft chapos is in the dough. When I visited my big sister for the first time in her new home, I learnt you can add a little flavor. The wonder that an onion can do! Then in High school Muthoni’s mom brought her chapos that had a little sugar in them. Then lately Nelly’s Kitchen of one Nelly Robi shared more secrets.All these plus Anyande’s old recipe makes up pretty much all of my chapati talent acquisition. Plus they say good cooks are born not made so maybe I got the gene, no?
Apart from my Papa there is one other man who loves my chapos and who I gladly make chapos for on any visit, even the impromptu ones. See, Wa Nyambura is the most proper diner I know. He could easily sit at high table with the Queen of England herself any day. But you should see him eat my chapos. He tears them apart happily and undresses them layer after layer. There are times I have seen his eyes close when he chews them away. My chapatis were my ticket to his heart I should think. His chapati narrative is different. His family owned the village pan. Everyone would have to suck up to his mama just so they were assured a better place on the pan-line on Christmas Day. Social relations were highly guarded for the sake of the chapati-pan. Wa Nyambura and his brothers behaved their best on this day; they even bathed early at the river and were very helpful with the goats. Good behavior assured one of a full chapati or even two. For Nyambura made githeri too, so the ones on her wrong side would get half chapo on their plate of githeri…
Let’s make chapatis already!