Hot, fiery, and incredibly versatile, spicy chakalaka is hugely popular across Southern Africa. The reason is simple. It can play Oscar-winning roles as a main course, side dish, or relish. I can’t think of anything I’ve eaten that has so many possibilities.
Chilies might get star billing here, but they’re superbly supported in this spicy chakalaka recipe by yellow, red, and green bell peppers, a trio of beans, sweet corn, tomatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic. And then the spices join in: cayenne pepper, paprika, garam masala, cumin, and cilantro.
Happily, in whatever role this chakalaka appears, it’s always exactly what I expect it to be — hot and full of vibrant flavors and colors. It’s like putting sunshine on your plate.
Mix ‘n match — anyway you like
Chakalaka is best buddies with many, many things. Versatility lies at the heart of its enormous appeal. It’ll be welcomed with open arms by any plain-grilled, BBQ’d, or pan-seared meat and seafood. They’ll just snuggle right into it.
Spoon it up with, say, nachos or flatbreads — and a dollop of fire-fighting yogurt alongside — and you’ve got a great main course for lunch, a fab starter, or a grand, drinks-time appetizer.
Burger patties go wild for it. Dare I say they leap right out of the bun and go looking for it. Savory sandwiches or a baked potato? Now you’re talking. Most things cheesy get all sulky without it. Scrambled eggs’ll jump back into their shells if they can’t see it. Hot dogs positively bark for it.
Ah, hot dogs. Southern Africa’s much-loved riff on that hand-held delight is lovingly tagged a ‘boerie roll’. That’d be a street-treat where the frank’s replaced by a grilled length of meaty, spicy ‘boerewors’ — farmers’ sausage. Topped off with a slather of chakalaka, well, oh boy, I’ve gladly devoured a few of those beauties.
Chakalaka on fire
My recommendation? Make your chakalaka fiery — on the cusp of where you think, ‘Whoa, that’s just right!’ But you don’t want the chilies and cayenne pepper to totally lord over all the other ingredients. You want the heat to pull all the other flavors into their own spotlight.
And that’s why it pays to take a little care with cooking your spicy chakalala. First you want a rich, slow-cooked base of chili, tomato, garlic, carrot, onion, and spices. Once that’s ready, you’ll add in the other ingredients — according to how fast they cook — and simmer till they’re all just tender. That’ll make sure your chakalaka’s full of contrasting textures set among those vibrant flavors and colors.
Another suggestion would be to make plenty at one go. I made a good two quarts from the quantities in our recipe. Once cooled, chakalaka will keep in the refrigerator for at least three days in a sealed container — and it freezes really well, too.
A word about that trio of beans
A lot of chakalaka recipes include canned baked beans. You know the variety — the ones cooked in tomato sauce. Now, I love those beans. Piping hot on buttery toast with good, strong cheddar grated on top. Galactically good. Any other way, er, no thanks.
So, our chakalaka uses a varied combo of white cannellini, borlotti and black beans. They look great, and, as we all know, we really do eat with our eyes.
- 6 red bird’s eye chilies finely diced, seeds and all
- 3 medium-size yellow onions peeled, halved, and cut into 1/4 inch slices
- 5 ounces salted butter
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and finely sliced
- 4 medium-size carrots peeled — 2 carrots grated and 2 cut into 1/4 inch dice
- 2 pounds ripe tomatoes skinned, roughly chopped, juice and all
- 3 medium-size bell peppers one red, one green, one yellow. Halved, deseeded, and first cut into 1/3-inch thick slices lengthways, then into ¾ inch pieces
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground sea salt
- 2 heaped teaspoons brown sugar
- 2 heaped teaspoons cayenne pepper
- 1 heaped teaspoons ground black pepper
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground paprika
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cilantro
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 heaped teaspoon garam masala
- 1 can borlotti beans 15-ounce can — drained and rinsed
- 1 can cannellini beans 15-ounce can — drained and rinsed
- 1 can black beans fagioli nero, 15-ounce can — drained and rinsed
- 8 ounces sweetcorn kernels fresh off the cob is grand, but rinsed from a can is fine
- 2 1/2 cups water
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- First up is the slow-cooked ‘sauce’ that forms the base for your chakalaka. So, on a medium-high heat, melt the butter in a saucepan that’s easily large enough to hold two quarts. Once the butter foams, add the onions and salt, and drop the heat to low-medium.
- Let the onions fry gently – with the occasional stir – for about 7 minutes. You want them to become really softened but not take on much colour. Then add the grated carrot, chilies, garlic, and black pepper. Stir, turn the heat to low and cook for another 5 minutes.
- Stir in the sugar, cayenne pepper, and all the ground spices. Cook the mix on that low heat for 5 minutes with a few watchful stirs to prevent it catching on the pan’s bottom.
- Now add the chopped tomatoes, diced carrots and water. Stir well and raise the heat to high. As it starts to bubble, drop the heat to low. Cover the pan and let it simmer for 15 minutes. As its simmering, give the sauce a few good stirs to break up any chunky pieces of tomato.
- Add the bell peppers and turn the heat to low-medium. You’re aiming for the peppers to become barely al dente – about 8 simmering minutes with a few stirs on that low-medium heat should do the trick. Try a piece or two to check. Cook for a little longer if you feel the peppers are a little underdone.
- Time now for the final ingredients that will add yet more flavor and texture to your chakalaka. Stir in all the beans and bring the pan back to a slow simmer. Cook for 3 minutes and then add the sweetcorn. After another 3 minutes simmer, remove the pan from the heat. Check for saltiness, and add according to your taste.
- Last two steps? Stir in the lime juice. Then imagine all the ways to serve your chakalaka.