For the longest time, my mother exclusively used drumsticks. And as far as I could tell, many of the Indian friends we had in Houston also used drumsticks in chicken curry. My mother moved on to other parts of the chicken, and then eventually boneless breasts, which, as you might imagine, drastically changed the composition of the curry.
She goes back and forth between boned and boneless, but keeping to a relatively vegetarian diet these days, doesn’t make chicken curry that often. I’m not complaining. The Indian vegetarian food she makes is fantastic.
When I first started cooking in my early 20s, Indian cooking scared me. It seemed complicated. It is, in fact, quite simple. There are a standard set of spices and their potency depends on how long and at what temperature they are cooked,; and then of course, you apply the same theory to the chicken, beef, seafood, or whatever you’re cooking. This took a while for me to understand, and a little while longer for me to put into successful practice.
And because of my fear of Indian cooking, I took the easy way out and cooked with boneless breast, which was a tragic mistake. The flavors don’t dance the same way without bone.
I’ve used a number of recipes over the years – note that my mother does not use a recipe, only her memory – and my favorite one (and most simple) is from a cookbook called “The Classic 1,000 Indian Recipes”, by Wendy Hobson. I love this cookbook and this particular recipe.
Here are the ingredients, I’ll go through my process below:
· 5 tbsp oil or ghee (I use 3 tbsp)
· 2 onions, thinly sliced (I only use one; not a fan of lots of onion)
· 5 cloves garlic, chopped (I use 6; huge fan of garlic)
· 1 inch ginger root, chopped
· ½ inch cinnamon stick
· 4 cloves
· 4 black peppercorns
· 2 bay leaves (I usually use 4-5)
· 1 black cardamom pod (Can be found at Indian grocery stores; I use green if I don’t have black)
· 12 chicken pieces, skinned
· 1 tbsp ground aniseeds
· 1 tbsp ground almond
· 1 tbsp ground coriander
· 1 tbsp ground roasted cumin
· ½ tsp ground red chili
· ½ tsp ground turmeric
· 14oz canned tomatoes, chopped (I include the liquid)
· 2/3 cup plain yoghurt
· ¾ cup water
· ½ tsp garam masala
· 1 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro (I use a hand full of cilantro)
· 1 small green chili, chopped
While I am getting all the ingredients out, I brown the chicken in a bit of vegetable oil – about 5 minutes each side. Madhur Jaffrey did this in a chicken curry recipe I read years ago. I have no recollection of the explanation, but the result is great.
Once the chicken is slightly brown, I put it aside on a plate and pour out the fat and remaining oil. Without cleaning the pan, I put in 3 tbsp of oil for the next step. Indian food uses an excessive amount of oil, so I always decrease whatever amount asked in a recipe. And I only use vegetable or canola oil – never, ever use olive oil. I was up in Maine once visiting my in-laws and in a moment of desperation used olive oil. It was…look, it was so horrible I can’t talk about it.
1. Okay, so heat the oil and fry the onions, garlic, ginger, and whole spices over medium heat until everything is golden brown.
2. Next, stir in the ground spices, tomatoes, and salt. Cook until oil appears at the surface.
3. Add the yoghurt and (the recipe says) “cook until all the liquid has been absorbed”. I’ve always been unclear on this. Does this mean that the liquid is all gone or that the yoghurt and other liquid have meshed well together? I cook until everything is mixed well together.
4. Then, add two-thirds of the water, cover, and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Add remaining water, increase heat to medium and cook for another two minutes until “the sauce is the consistency you prefer.” My preference is for a thickish sauce, that is more brown in color. I get the consistency, but I’ve never been able to get the color. I have no idea how my mother does it, but her curry is always perfectly brown.
I like to let any kind of Indian food sit for a bit before eating so all the spices have time to age, as it were. I mix in chopped cilantro, cover, and let it sit until the meal.
A note about cilantro: I love it. I can’t get enough of the flavor, the texture, and the aroma. I tend to overdo it on the cilantro garnish.
For the rice, I make 1 ½ or 2 cups of basmati rice, and cook it with butter, salt, a bay leaf, a few cloves, a cardamom pod, and a cinnamon stick.
Beer is the common alcoholic beverage to go with curry, but I find champagne does the trick, too.