Chicken curry and mind controlSeptember 6, 2006
When my husband and I lived in Cincinnati, we had an apartment one block from an Indian restaurant (and across the street from a Skyline Chili, serving Cincinnati chili). Oh, the temptations. Oh, my vanishing waistline.
Do you think Indian restaurants actually have fans in their kitchens just for the purpose of blowing the wonderful aromas out into the street? Every time I would smell food from that Indian restaurant, I would instantaneously crave it. I’m not exaggerating.
I think that Indian restaurant controlled my mind for the two and a half years we lived there.
So you can imagine the effects homemade curry would have on my feeble brain. My husband has taken to making his curry about every ten days, and when I come home the house smells like (in my imagination) an Indian bazaar. His curry is really, really good. It replicates my favorite things about my limited experience in Indian cuisine: tender meats stewed in a rich, thick sauces that awaken your tongue (and control your mind).
Read on to discover his secrets and his evolution into curry-cook…
As you may be able to tell from other entries, I love spicy food. Spices (and spiciness) are at the cornerstone of much of what I do in the kitchen. There’s likely no greater “spice cuisine” than Indian cuisine. Unfortunately, the more I try to learn, the more I realize two things:
First, calling it “Indian food” is just not accurate. Indian food is full of variations that range across the subcontinent and its myriad cultures. You have your Punjab cuisine, your banquet cuisine, your vegetarian cuisine, you have Muslims, Kashmiri… the list goes on and on. So there is little hope to truly learn it all without full immersion. Sigh. So I have to take what I can and go from there.
Second, there are techniques that are unique to this style of cooking. The most important and easiest to understand is toasting spices. To toast spices, you cook them briefly in the cooking fat (butter, oil, etc.) and allow their fat soluble qualities to really amplify and intensify. This is a beautiful technique that I’ve used in other recipes; it lends tremendous flavor to this dish.
Some further tips… Like stir-fry, you need to get your pieces set up before you start cooking. The techniques call for a quick start, then slow things down to let the ingredients mellow out. So you should try to have all your ingredients chopped up and the spice mix made. I broke the directions into prep work and cook top so you aren’t reading halfway through and then worry you might burn the dish because you forgot to chop something up. Prepare to really just use your eyes and nose to examine the food as it cooks; this is a tremendous help.
In addition to technique, I use an ingredient called ghee to try to bring a more authentic flavor to the dish. Ghee is a clarified butter that is very common in Indian cuisine. It is butter that has been clarified and cooked so long that the water has been cooked off and the milk solids have browned. It’s extremely flavorful, and it adds a certain character to the dish that olive oils or other more common oils don’t seem to match. I’ll be adding a post about ghee soon, but if you Google it, you can see the grand history of this wonderful ingredient.
Finally, I have a confession to make. This recipe is likely very un-Indian. The basics were first taught to me by my wife’s Chinese grandfather. He learned it in Malaysia after he and his wife fled China during the Cultural Revolution. I’ve added other spices, upped the heat and swapped some ingredients in that he doesn’t use, but the foundation for this was his — and for that I thank him so much. So I hope you enjoy, we do very often.
1 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs
1 large onion
1 serrano chile
2 tbsp. fresh minced ginger
3 garlic cloves
4 tbsp. ghee or olive oil
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup yogurt
1/4 cup coconut milk
2 tbsp. curry powder
1 tsp. garam marsala
1/2 tsp. cardamom
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1/4 tsp. chipotle pepper powder
1/4 tsp. cayenne powder
1. Make the spice mix.
2. Chop the thighs into bite-sized pieces.
3. Dice the onion, mince or press the garlic, mince the garlic and dice the chile fine.
Cook Top Work:
1. Remember the key to Indian cooking: First, toast your spices in oil. In a large pot over high heat, pour in 3 tablespoons of ghee or olive oil. Let it heat until tiny wisps of smoke can be seen. Now add the spice mix. Stir this mixture until the spices begin to turn brown and toast. Approximately 1 minute. DO NOT TAKE YOUR EYES OFF THE POT. IT WILL BURN!
2. Once the mixture has browned, add the onions, the ginger and the pepper. Liberally salt the mixture (approximately 1 tsp). You want to hold back on the garlic. (Once garlic burns it becomes bitter in taste.) After about 2 minutes, you should see the onion begin to change color. Now add the garlic. Cook for another minute over high heat. This step should result in a dark, spicy paste of vegetables and spices.
3. Salt the chicken and then add it to the pot. You may need more oil or ghee at this point; if the pan is too dry, add the remaining tablespoon. Begin to brown the chicken. Approximately 4 min.
4. Once the chicken starts to brown, it’s time for the wine. This step is a pretty well-known technique called deglazing. Sure, the wine adds flavor — but you’ll also notice all the brown bits on the bottom of the pot. You are also using the wine to scrape those up. Those little bits are full of flavor, and you want them incorporated into the final product. So as soon as you add the wine, use your spoon or silicon spatula to start scraping them up into the liquid.
5. Once the wine begins to cook off and be absorbed by the meat, turn down the temperature to medium.
6. You’ll notice that the browned bits are emerging again. This time, you’re going to add coconut milk to deglaze. Work up all the nice patches of spice and bits. Once you’ve done this, turn the temperature down to low, cover with a lid, and let cook for about 15 min.
7. Turn off the heat. Stir in the yogurt.
8. Serve over rice. Enjoy!