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The F-Word

Image by Dennis Prescott (via Dennis The Prescott)

In Kenya, and many other African countries, ‘feminism’ is a dirty word that leaves a bad taste in a traditionalist’s mouth—but what better way to cleanse the palette than digging into some delicious food, right? Well, as much as it can be an escape, even food is political. Kitchens, particularly in our homes, are gendered spaces donning the chef’s hat on women tasked to feed their families. Why? Because that’s just the way it is and always has been.

From our respective home kitchens, we all digitally communed in Evelyn’s kitchen to make chapatis with Priscah Bichage. The skillsets were varied—from a kid chef to beginner chefs and in-between chefs with rusty skills like me. Getting to make chapatis again transported me to my college years. Even at the height of my stress levels juggling academics and extra-curriculars, I carved out time to make chapatis to quell my cravings for a taste of home. That’s the thing about cooking something as involving as chapatis: it’s a process but the results always prove it to be worth your time. Priscah guided us step-by-step in cooking and conversation as we sank our hands and heads into the inextricable ties between food and feminism, our two F-words in question.

Step One: MIX dry ingredients

For Priscah, this recipe is practically muscle memory, so she didn’t follow strict measurements—instead, she called on the ancestors and her own intuition for guidance. To begin, we added flour, sugar, and salt to a large mixing bowl. As we unearthed in our conversation, something as seemingly mundane as flour can carry such rich history that ties directly to its use in Kenyan staples like chapatis. As Dr. Anita Plummer chimed in with her historical knowledge, milling factories producing flour at a commercial level were introduced in Kenya under British colonialism. To me, these advancements veiled as development for local communities were just a means for the monetary profit of the British.

This first step is done when all the dry ingredients are mixed to the point that they are indistinguishable. I can’t help but draw parallels between this process of mixing our dry ingredients and the influential decisions made under that are not immediately noticeable in present day Kenya. Ultimately, these histories of flour production are lost on us unless we sift through our origin story.

Step Two: ADD water + special additions

That thing is, you’re not getting any dough without adding something to bind the ingredients. I’ve eaten chapatis for my entire life, so I readily held a cup of warm water in hand for the next step; however, this is where the creativity in Priscah’s recipe came through. I, for one, had never heard of the addition of pureed butternut to the recipe. Granted some of us chapati purists were thrown off by the switch up, Priscah assured us that the added health benefits were worth it.

As much as I think of chapatis as a cultural food in Kenya, we were quickly reminded that they had a long journey to secure their cherished spots on our plates. It’s no coincidence when we hear about chapatis in South Asian cuisine and wonder how we can have the same name for a Kenyan dish. Chapatis are an import from South Asian cultures that have since been integrated—first, in the Swahili culture—to the broader conception of Kenyan foods we see on the streets, in people’s homes and every special occasion imaginable.

Step Three: KNEAD both components

Until this point, we were laying the groundwork for the most crucial part of the chapati process: kneading. For me, every time I’ve considered making chapatis off the whim, the kneading stage puts me off because it gets a little messy. Once you’ve mustered up the courage to dig your hands in for your appetite’s sake, you realise that the fun of this stage overrides the inevitable cleanup you’ve dreaded. Peaking at the screen to see how everyone else was fairing at this stage felt like looking in a mirror as we all had a variation of the same focused face, trying to perfect the consistency of our dough—not too sticky, not too dry.

Just then, I was realizing that the hidden ingredient in Kenyan chapatis is the historical factors that have led them to being assimilated so seamlessly in our collective conception of everyday Kenyan food. Now, that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue as easily as the other ingredients so that might be why we aren’t thinking about colonial influences of flour production or the interactions with South Asian cultures that brought chapatis to the Swahili culture every time we’re craving these layered delights.

Step Four: REST the dough

I can’t lie, I love this step because the dough is doing all the work as it comfortable rests in the bowl. This step, however, was our opportunity to give our hands a rest and get our minds to work. Food goes beyond aromatic scents wafting out of the kitchen—it is a vessel that carries rich values we hold close to our cultures from the point we till the farmland for our crops to the presentation of a home-cooked dish on the dining table. Folded into the foods we love are our ancestors’ ideas of the roles we take as individuals to ensure that our communities are thriving and nourished for centuries ahead.

With how Kenyan chapatis are a product of multiple cultures in conversation, engrained in the recipe are ideas of the woman’s role in the kitchen that span across inherently patriarchal cultures. While the idea of a woman cooking for her family can be spun in an empowering light, they are stripped of any tangible claims of agency when they are barred from land ownership to oversee the journey from farm to dining table. The thing is, these patriarchal beliefs have existed for centuries that they are deemed to be an absolute truth. As women have begun to question these beliefs, they are met with resistance because they are seen to be disturbing the dough as it rests; however, the blinders placed on our eyes by the patriarchy block out the fact that the dough was spoilt before the resting stage.

Step Five: DIVIDE into smaller dough balls

At this point, the chapatis were finally taking shape as we rolled out the dough ball into a large chapati shape and coated it in oil. This recipe was meant to yield about 12 chapatis so we proceeded to cut the flattened dough into strips roughly the width of 3 fingers put together. As much as Priscah was here to teach us how to make chapatis, cooking brings on a sense of intimacy whether you’re in the same kitchen or Zooming in. With every step, you could see how her mastery of the process is carried on generationally—a story could be told in every unit of measurement or mixing technique she shared with us.

We learned about Priscah’s adolescence wrestling with cultural norms that boxed her in as a young girl. Coming from a tribe where she was expected to be circumcised along with other cultural traditions, she narrowly escaped this fate because she did not grow up in a rural setting. She did, however, learn the traditional role of girls in the kitchen at a young age while her brothers were allowed to play outside like the kids they were. Priscah’s upbringing, much like many other women’s, solidified her understanding of women’s subservient role in society. Despite this, it is evident that she’s a woman who has been empowered to champion the fight for gender equality and call herself a feminist in a society she says breeds toxic masculinity. By deviating from the patriarchal norm, she is rewriting what it means to be a woman honouring her cultural traditions while also infusing her feminist values. Just as we carefully formed our dough rolls, Priscah showed us how she was carefully molded by important figures in her life who have advocated for her to carve a new path for her womanhood and how she parents her daughter in an empowering way.

Step Six: ROLL out dough balls

As I was finally settling into my stride, my hands kicked into autopilot mode to complete the dough rolls that ensure the pull-apart chapati layers; however, it wasn’t without a couple of failed attempts. Priscah’s reassuring gaze as we went around to show-and-tell our rolls let me know I was on the right track. Of course, she was much faster than us at this rolling stage, so as we continued to work diligently, she continued to chronicle her childhood. Priscah spoke of her father who empowered her to harness her power as an individual, as a woman. While her father comes from a strictly traditionalist generation, Priscah developed a close relationship with him due to his openness to right the wrongs we carry generationally. Metaphorical rolling pin in hand, he ironed out the toxic traditional norms many cultures across the globe follow without questioning their existence. Her father decided to give all his children—male or female—an equal portion of land as an inheritance. In modern times, this may need seem like a big deal, but this is such a defiant act of empowerment, especially for his daughters. Land ownership instills agency to create a livelihood for oneself in ways that have been barred from women for generations.

Step Seven: WARM chapatis on the stove

Once all the air bubbles were flattened out, we finally got to make our chapatis. First, quickly passing them over the heat to dry them out then bringing them on a lightly oiled pan to cook them for a few minutes per side. As we were winding down our conversation on the traditional roles of kitchens, I finally pondered on how we view cooking on a commercial level versus at home. While traditionally, cooking is seen as the woman’s job, the professional culinary industry is dominated by male chefs. As a result, all the glitz and glam goes to the men while women are relegated to the kitchen in their homes as their world stage. This dichotomy feeds into how we give credit—while men receive outward press for their culinary achievements and have a sense of ownership of what they present, women are still expected to cook because they are serving others. Getting the opportunity to bring this sense of agency to a home kitchen was empowering as women across the globe communed to better our skills and broaden our knowledge on the histories that inform our recipes.


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