Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
There is a magical place where the setting sun is crimson red and the beaches are paved with glistening golden sand. Lush rainforests team with life; the air is so dense, a deep breath feels like drowning. Rich fertile plains stretch for miles, yet towns and cities are crowded with millions of human souls. The highest reaches of our planet cradle the north, and to the south three seas join as one.
This is a glimpse of India.
So far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds. Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing overlooked.
— Mark Twain, from "Following the Equator"
Where the Story Begins
Thirty years ago my husband worked in India as part of a team of scientists selected by the USAID (United States Agency for International Development); their assignment was to provide instruction and support in the construction of sanitary water supplies. Bill's assigned areas were not the usual tourist gathering places, but rather were the poorer, undeveloped areas in the south and west.
He and his team landed in New Delhi, then traveled by train to Narnaul where they met personnel of India’s Central Ground-Water Board. From Narnaul they traveled to and worked in the States of Maharashtra and Kerala.
- Maharashtra—a state that stretches from the Western Ghats to secluded beaches on the west coast; historically significant, rich with forts and temples.
- Kerala—a state in Southern India, is known as a tropical paradise of waving palms and wide, sandy beaches. It is a narrow strip of coastal territory that slopes down the Western Ghats in a cascade of lush, green vegetation and reaches the Arabian Sea.
Bill has said that this was one of the most personally and professionally satisfying assignments of his career; an opportunity to meet and work with people with experiences much different from our own. He will never forget the people, the sights, or the sounds. And then, there is the food.
The cuisine of India offers an explosion of tastes and aromas, all centered on a myriad of spices and herbs.
I have done my best to try to recreate that experience for him—it has taken a very long time, with much trial and error. Here is the result that he says is a winner.
First, Let's Talk About the Spices
If you have been reading my articles for a while you are familiar with the stories of Dutch and English explorers who went in search of the spice route. You have read of their success in finding a rich supply of those precious seasonings—black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. And you also know about the horrific enslavement and slaughter of native peoples for control of that precious commodity.
The Malabar Coast in Southwest India is famous for the spices used in chicken curry. They are abundant in Kerala and, along with fish and coconut milk are a significant part of the daily cuisine.
The Spices We Will Use Today
There are ten spices in this chicken curry. Three of them—fennel,cumin, and coriander—are the dried seeds of plants in the parsley family and provide a warm earthy flavor. Fresh coriander (cilantro) gives a bright herbal note. Black mustard seeds resemble poppy seeds and are used whole. Cinnamon bark, cardamom pods, and dried whole cloves provide an almost sweet taste. Black peppercorns and cayenne pepper contribute heat. Finally, turmeric, the root of a plant similar to ginger, supplies a bright yellow-orange saffron-like color.
All of these are commonly available except for the black mustard seeds which are native to India. For those, you might have to visit an Indian market or natural-food store.
How to Prepare the Spices
Turmeric and cayenne are sold already ground. The rest you will purchase whole and grind at home. Although many cooks in India use a mortar and pestle, I prefer to use a small coffee grinder.
To bring out the full flavor of the spices, roast them briefly before grinding them.
Place a small sauté pan over medium heat; add about one teaspoon of oil. Once the oil is hot add the coriander seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, whole cloves, cardamom pods, a stick of cinnamon, and peppercorns. Stir frequently, roasting them until they become aromatic. They burn quickly, so watch carefully and remove them from the pan as soon as you begin to notice a slight browning and smell their aroma.
Next, grind the spices using either a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder. Please don't use a blender or food processor. You will end up with a sticky paste rather than finely ground toasted spices.
Recipe for the Curry Spice Mix
(makes about 1/4 cup)
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds (2 teaspoons ground)
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds (2 teaspoons ground)
- 1 teaspoon cumin seed (1 teaspoon ground)
- 4 whole cloves (the spice, not garlic cloves) (1/4 teaspoon ground)
- 2 cardamom pods (1/4 tsp ground)
- ½-inch stick of cinnamon (1/2 teaspoon ground)
- ½ teaspoon peppercorns (1/2 teaspoon ground)
- ½ tablespoon ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
You will use 2 tablespoons of this mix to make the chicken curry.
Recipe for the Chicken Curry
This is the part you have been waiting for—the actual recipe for the Chicken Curry!
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 one-inch piece of ginger, minced
- 3 medium yellow onions, sliced thin
- 3 fresh cilantro stems
- 2 tablespoons Curry Spice mix (see above)
- 2 carrots, peeled and diagonally cut into thin slices
- 2 pounds chicken thighs, skinned (bone-in)
- 2 cups light coconut milk, divided
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 medium-sized Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped (I leave mine in fairly large chunks)
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
- Yogurt for garnish (optional)
- Heat oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the black mustard seeds and stir constantly for about one minute.
- Add the garlic, ginger, sliced onion, coriander stems, and carrots; cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add the spice mixture and continue to cook until the onions and carrots are soft.
- Place the chicken in the pan, stirring and turning the pieces so that they are evenly coated with the vegetable/spice mixture.
- Add one cup of coconut milk and the potatoes. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 40 minutes.
- When the chicken is cooked through and the potatoes are tender, remove the cover and increase the heat to medium-high. Bring the mixture to a boil and let boil for about 3 to 5 minutes or until thickened. Stir in the remaining coconut milk and the cilantro leaves.
- Serve with cooked rice.
- I recommend a spoonful of plain yogurt on top of each serving; the creamy dairy tang will provide a nice cooling contrast to the bold spiciness of the dish.
- Coconut has a slightly sweet flavor. If you would prefer a tangier dish, you can use yogurt in place of coconut milk. Simply add broth or water in place of the first cup of milk, and yogurt in place of the second cup of milk.
- A vegetarian version of this dish can be prepared by substituting large florets of cauliflower in place of the chicken. The addition of a cup of fresh or frozen (and defrosted) green peas at the very end of cooking will add a nice bit of color to the finished dish.
© 2016 Linda Lum