Why Hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes! I’m your culinary canary, Jon O’Guin. Today we’re going to cover a food you’ve probably never heard of, the video game scene of the early 90’s, and etymological knots so thick, I may be the first person to have ever make an effort to unravel them. SO, let’s start with the most obvious part of that conversation, the one I didn’t mention at all: Sports!
Give Me A Sporting Chance
As may come as some shock to you, dear readers, the overweight nerd with theatrical inclinations has…never been much of a ‘sports’ guy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not like, allergic to the idea of playing outside. I’ve played plenty of ultimate Frisbee and backyard football, I’m fairly fond of going swimming any time after 9 AM, and played little league for several years as a youngster. But as a youth, it never grabbed my attention. Physical activity was something you did to either get something, or get somewhere. I was much more interested in literature and fantasy.
Here we have literature produced within a fantasy setting! How deep does the rabbit hole go?
This is by no means my greatest flaw or any such tragic over-wrought claim: I’ve actually found that, in general, I much prefer to get exercise not from sports but for pay. If you ask me to physically haul lines in a theater, I can do it ALL day. I’ve done the math, and on some days, I’ve hauled the equivalent of 1,000 pounds to the top of the Empire State Building and down, 4 times. In a single day.
What it DOES do, in the way of moderate irritation, is create a rather glaring blind spot in my trivia knowledge databanks. I don’t have much more than a surface level understanding of most sports, and sports history is a HUGE part of American trivia. Who won what superbowl, when was record X beaten, etc. And I am woefully under-informed in that regard. Recently, my brother immediately got a clue I was giving him because, quote “There’s only player for the Celtics Jon would ever know about.” (It’s Larry Bird.)
This is the least tired-looking picture of him actually playing basketball I could find.
And given how important “The Dream Team” was, at an Olympic Games THAT OCCURRED WHILE I WAS ALIVE, featuring some of the most famous names in the history of the sport, knowing Larry Bird’s name isn’t an accomplishment. That's like thinking you should be applauded for your knowledge of Jazz for knowing who the hell Etta James is. So, what does this all have to do with today’s recipe? Glad you asked! Let's talk about video games.
A Sega for The Ages
Now, when I was a child, I played baseball in the real world, as I alluded to earlier. I was not much of a fan of the game: I was an outfielder, so it mostly consisted of standing around doing nothing until someone got lucky, and then running around like an idiot until I had embarrassed myself. One time, mid-game, I had to go to the bathroom so badly, I left. I just propped up my coat, and tucked a glove on the end, and ran over to the port-a-potty. My absence was eventually noticed, and caused some consternation among the adults, especially my father, who had some form of leadership position with the team. Looking back, I can only assume that I was TERRIBLE at the sport, as I can think of no other reason that no one would notice a child literally disrobing and running across the field mid-game. Or why I was allowed to wear a moderately long coat over my uniform during the game. Unless I walked off-field to GET my coat first, which frankly just raises more questions.
However, back home, my game of choice was basketball. Not on a hoop set-up in the cul-de-sac, oh no. No, my jam, and indeed, most of America’s 1994 Jam of choice, was NBA JAM.
*Quad City DJs starts to play*
Everybody get up, it's time to slam now
We gotta real jam going now,
An arcade game released in 1993, and ported to the console games of its era, NBA Jam is, to this day, the 5th highest grossing arcade game of all time…not adjusting for inflation. Look, I gotta pad stats somewhere. Anywho, the game was a phenomenon at the time, featuring an almost to-the-minute accurate line-up of the players of the day. But what really caught on to me, and to many my age, was the lines the game taught us. See, as an young man, I didn’t watch professional basketball. I can’t honestly recall PLAYING any basketball until Middle school. So the terminology of the sport was freshly introduced to me via the breathless cries of the excitement-powered announcers of the video game. I can, to this day, over 20 years later, recite the cries of those announcers.
“Can’t Buy a Bucket!”
“He’s on FI-RE!”
And, the biggest one, the one that would permeate the vocabulary of the 90’s:
Seriously, just reading the word is getting me a little pumped up.
Of course, the phrase wasn’t invented by the game. Oh no, “Boom shakalaka” appeared as far back as 1969, in a Sly and the Family Stone jam. It’s onomatopoeia, a word I have only just know realized has a fucking T in it. Seriously, everyone I know says (you know, the “maybe once a year it comes up”) it like “ono-maNO-peea” Anyway, “Boom shakalaka” is a reproduction of the sound of a sweet slam dunk: the boom of the player slamming the hoop down, and the rattling that follows as it bounces up and down for a bit once he lets go.
Absolutely none of this has anything to do with today’s recipe, other than shakalaka sounding like the dish's name.
Chakalaka is a pepper-based relish for braai, a tradition in South Africa that we’ll explore more in-depth next week, because for some reason I keep almost writing theme months on accident. As a quick summary: Braai is the South African version of barbecue. And one of the go-to meals of Braai is boerewors, a type of beef sausage. So, basically a fancy version of a hot dog with relish. Actually, the pepper relish includes tomato paste and spices, so it’s basically like a pre-made mix of Ketchup, mustard, and relish into one topping. Efficient.
Despite sounding almost identical, Chakalaka is not derived from the same sick slams that make shakalaka. In fact, there’s no reliable information about WHERE the name Chakalaka comes from. I can only find two POTENTIAL origins, neither of which make much sense:
The first is the strangest: see, Chakalaka IS a word…In Aztec. And, shortly thereafter, Spanish. And, for reasons no one understands, Hebrew. Seriously. Chachalacani was the Aztec word for “a Gossip”, and was adataped into Spanish as chacalaca meaning “one who babbles”. This was, at some point, adopted into Hebrew as THE LIGHTS ON TOP OF EMERGENCY VEHICLES. Again, I am not joking. This is the etymology of a real Hebrew word. It replaced “kojak”, the previous word for those lights, and partly the reason the TV show is named that.
Ask your parents.
The second one I believe to be more accurate, and I had to personally hunt it down myself: a single blog about chakalaka referenced a Tunisian warm salad called “chakcuaca”, a term I found NO evidence for. However, researching Tunisian salads, I found one called “chakcuouka”, that bears some similarity to the relish, excepting literally 4/5ths of the spice components. If the correct origin, it’s also quite fascinating, because it connects Chakalaka to a premiere food of 2017. See, “Chakchouka” is believed to be a Tunisian vegetable ragout, and the father to the modern day Shaksouka, a Middle Eastern breakfast dish of eggs simmered in a spicy tomato sauce.
So what we’re dealing with is a evolutionary cousin to the breakfast of Baghdad, influenced by the cuisine of the Dutch and Indian who lived in Johannesburg. And, as noted, I may be the first person to have ever researched this topic enough to make this connection. But, now that we know the roots, let’s get to the foods.
Relish your Freedom
Let me be the first to warn you: Chakalaka creation is 80% preparation, 20% waiting. The recipe itself is so simple, the magazine I first found it in (Saveur) put it in a single step in their broader recipe for boerewors with chakalaka. IT’s essentially just “you know those 16 things I made you dice? Put them in this pot one at a time, and cook until soft.”
Literally, dicing, mincing, chopping, and grating the ingredients for this dish took me an HOUR. You grate 5 whole carrots and 2 inches of ginger, mince thai chiles and garlic, chop onion and 3 types of bell pepper. All of this takes me forever, and is agonizing, because our kitchen counters are like, 3-4 inches too short for me. But, eventually, I succeed.
The Return to Spice Mountain, starring Dwayne Johnson.
And then it begins. You sauté the onions, then you toss in that colorful bowl of peppers and aromatics, along with 2 tablespoons of curry powder. Then you add in an equally large bowl of grated carrots, some diced tomatoes, tomato paste, and water, and simmer that sucked until everything is soft and a little goopy. Hit it with some thyme, salt and pepper, and you got yourself a relish.
"Why is this picture here, Jon?"
"I thought we were gonna spend more time talking about how boring the process was."
"Why would we do that?"
"I don't know, we spent like, 500 words on NBA Jam."
This is by no means the ONLY chakalaka recipe. Doing some research, I found that many recipes called for a can of baked beans to be dumped into the whole she-bang, making an even greater culinary mess. Some use cilantro, some omit the carrots, it's very much a "as your family makes it" kind of recipe. But, in the end, it’s a tasty topping for a hearty sausage. The heat balances the meatiness of rich meat well, the texture of the veggies is solid, and there's a nice balance between sweet and savory. All in all, I’m certain I’ll try it again.
And if it feels like you went through a lot of stuff to get to a rather simple process at the end, NOW YOU KNOW WHAT THAT HOUR OF GRATING CARROTS AND MINCING GINGER FELT LIKE.
Thanks for reading! As always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Patreon if you’d like to chat with us or support the site.
THURSDAY: JON DIVES INTO HIS BROTHER’S DOMAIN, THE DREADED MATHEMATICS, AND THE IDEA OF “OVEN LOGIC”.
Serves like, 20? I don't know, man, this is like, a QUART of relish.
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped (2 cups)
1 each green, red, and yellow bell pepper, finely chopped (4 1⁄2 cups total)
2 tbsp. mild curry powder
2 green bird's-eye chiles, minced (1 Tbsp.)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
One 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated (2 Tbsp.)
5 large carrots, scrubbed and coarsely grated (4 cups)
1 3⁄4 cups canned diced tomatoes and their juices (14 oz.)
2 tbsp. tomato paste
Leaves from 2 thyme sprigs
Freshly ground black pepper
1. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and season with salt; cook, stirring, until translucent, 10 minutes.
2. Stir in the bell peppers, curry powder, chiles, garlic, and half of the ginger; cook, stirring, 2 minutes.
3. Add the carrots, season with salt, and stir. Add the tomatoes and their juices, 1 cup water, and the tomato paste, stirring to combine. Lower the heat to medium and simmer until the vegetables have softened and the mixture has thickened slightly, about 15 minutes.
4. Remove and stir in the thyme, the remaining ginger, and salt and pepper to taste.