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For a Better Grilled Cheese Sandwich, Add Chakalaka

To be completely honest, I cooked approximately zero meals during the first few weeks of 2021. After surviving the year that was, I stared into the fridge, feeling unmotivated. I resorted to eating a lot of cereal and takeout, which is fine, but I had to get out of my slump. In dire need of inspiration, I picked up Hawa Hassan's In Bibi's Kitchen and cooked my first dish of the year: Chakalaka and Cheddar Braaibroodjies.

This South African grilled cheese sandwich, filled with a spicy vegetable relish, was the perfect dish to get me reacquainted with my kitchen-really simple, but also just really good.

The key element is the chakalaka, which Hassan describes as a "spicy, tangy, full-of-flavor" concoction that's "similar to a chutney or salsa." It's packed with chopped cabbage, bell peppers, grated carrots, and crushed tomatoes that slowly simmer with fragrant spices, plus onions, garlic, and ginger. "All of the juices from the vegetables, plus a hint of acidity, make it taste similar to something pickled," she adds.

Making chakalaka is a mostly hands-off affair. You cook the aromatics into a Dutch oven or large heavy pot, then add turmeric, cumin, coriander, and salt before tossing in your vegetables. After about 30 minutes of cooking over low heat, the mixture reduces and all of the flavors meld into a vibrantly colored relish. After turning off the heat, you stir in a dash of white vinegar or fresh lemon juice for added brightness.

Chakalaka is mostly about the spices, Hassan explains, so you can add or subtract vegetables and include whatever you have in the fridge: "As long as you're using the turmeric, cumin, and garlic, all of the flavors of chakalaka will come through."

In South Africa, the relish is often served with grilled food; in the case of braaibroodjies, it's served inside of a grilled sandwich. Braaibroodjies are typically cooked on a grill over coals at braais, or barbecues, but Hassan adapted her recipe for the stove using a cast-iron skillet.

In addition to the chakalaka, the sandwiches are filled with grated sharp cheddar, which melts quickly and makes it easy to get even edge-to-edge coverage and an oozy outcome. Spreading a little mayo on the outside of the bread encourages the sandwich to get completely, perfectly browned all over.

"The chakalaka ties in the flavor of the mayo and cheese, balancing the richness" with its tang and earthy vegetables, Hasan says.

Once you have a batch of chakalaka, though, you'll find it's much more than an addition to your grilled cheese sandwich. Hassan says she serves it alongside sausage or dolloped into soups and stews, and she also enjoys adding it onto a plain bowl of mielie pap or polenta. A jar will keep in the fridge for up to a week. Which is to say, the braaibroodjies weren't just the first dish I made this year, they were also the second-and I found myself enjoying the rest of chakalaka over the course of several dinners, accompanying my fish and rice throughout the week.


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