“The Illegal” by Lawrence Hill & poulet chez yoyo
A good book is a lucky find; a good book that ricochets off current events, helping us see them in a new way, is an even luckier find. The Illegal is that rare book. When it’s published in January, readers will immediately see its parallels to the unfolding refugee crisis in Europe, though the book takes place in a fictional island nation called Freedom State located in the Indian Ocean.
It’s here that marathon runner Keita Ali, our narrator, finds himself living — hiding, really — illegally after he flees his native Zantoroland, another fictional island nation to Freedom State’s south. His father has been murdered by the government for his reporting on political corruption, and Ali’s sister has been kidnapped as further punishment. Ali, an ascetic, likable young black man, must earn his sister’s ransom through the only means he knows: running and winning races in Freedom State. Meanwhile, he must navigate the dangers of being an illegal alien, constantly ducking the authorities and never quite knowing who to trust.
Hill’s exploration of citizenship versus illegality is rich and compassionate, washing the political question with brushstrokes of humanity and nuance and daily struggle. His offbeat characters, though, are perhaps the strongest piece of the tale: the spitfire elderly white woman who befriends Ali in Freedom State, the wheelchair-bound lesbian journalist who will stop at nothing to get a story, and the complicated madame of a brothel in the black slum of Freedom State whose allegiance is to no one but herself. Their personal stories all relate to the larger definition — one that could not be more relevant today — of home, nation, refuge, and empathy.
This paired recipe came from the book itself: Ali cooks his father’s chicken (Poulet Chez Yoyo) for a new friend in Freedom State, evoking the connection most of us feel between food and memory. The book gives a rough outline of the ingredients but no measurements, so this is my interpretation of that dish.
Poulet Chez Yoyo
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup yellow onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 skin-on chicken thighs (or you could use skin-on chicken breast)
- 1 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes
- 3 medium carrots, diced
- 1 small sweet potato, diced
- 3/4 tablespoon curry powder
- 6 sprigs thyme
- handful of basil, roughly chopped
- 3 tablespoons peanut butter
- salt and pepper
Heat two tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat in a frying or saute pan; add the onion and garlic and saute until fragrant.
In a separate pan, heat the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat and brown the chicken thighs on both sides. Remove from heat when cooked through and set aside.
Add diced tomatoes, carrots and sweet potato to the onion and garlic and stir together. Season with salt and pepper, keeping the heat at medium or medium-high.
Add curry powder, thyme, basil and peanut butter. Stir thoroughly.
Add chicken to the tomato mixture and cover, simmering until the tomato mixture has reduced a bit and the vegetables are tender, about 20-25 minutes.
Serve as is, or over rice.