My mother’s first question after ‘Ah, hello’ is ‘Have you eaten?’. And if you have, it’s of no consequence, you will be be fed again. If we so much as sniffled, she’d bring out her version of Indian Penicillin. When we’re upset, she makes our favourite food. When my sister and I were pregnant, she went for us like pigs that needed fattening, nutritiously of course. Then when babies came along, ayurvedic principles defined our platefuls. My mother, in the midst of a family argument over dinner, might roar angrily at us in one breath and suddenly, worriedly ask if the dosa was crisp enough with the next. It’s hilarious; which do you reply to, how to keep up? It’s enough reason to indian head roll a ‘yes’ and keep your mouth occupied, unless you want the indian-upside-the-head smack for impertinence. For all the follies, inconsistencies and joys of life riding like cars on a rollercoaster, her food was the heartwarming constant. As is her love.
I am one of those annoying grown-up kids who goes home to ransack the parents fridge and open lids on pans, hoping to cop a free meal. When I find this curry sitting pretty on the stove, the sides of my jaw pinches achingly in greedy anticipation.
I don’t quite know what it is about this particular chicken curry that makes me want to dance a jig. This is the scent of dinner waiting for you at home, of tired minds and empty bodies being restored to good health. It’s the herald of the days end, when putting your feet up after a hefty plateful, is all that’s left to do. The smell of this curry is one of my happy places. Smirk at my fancifulness all you like, I know a good thing when I eat it!
This Kerala-style Chicken Curry’s slightly thickened body ensures it’s a good pairing with south-indian preferred rice or north-indian staple of chapatis. Heck, a few slices of plastic white bread would work for me. And leftovers chucked into a soft white bun is just hog heaven! A pumpkin thoran makes for a perfect pairing. Add a sliced tomato and onion salad spritzed with lime and salt and feast.
Use fresh spices, it makes all the difference. Don’t bother with the papery dried curry leaves; you might as well toss torn newspaper into the pot. If you can’t source it, leave it out, the curry will still work but not quite as ethereally. The aniseed is a must, no compromise. It’s the defining scent of this curry.
I like using a whole jointed chicken in this as the flavour is much richer from cooking on the bone. Thigh meat, skinned and bone-in, makes an excellent alternative. If you prefer, as many do, skinned and boned thigh meat works well but you will find the body of the curry is glossier and the flavour richer when the gelatin from the bone merges with the masala. Chicken breasts are no go in my book. Your call. I won’t lie, it takes a while to make. But it freezes beautifully. So I’d say make a big batch and stash it in the freezer for those inevitable can’t-be-bothered-days.
When friends come round wanting to taste a proper south indian curry, I tend to pull this one out. Lamb divides people, beef can be too heavy, chicken is an evergreen favourite. The fact that it works well with different carb staples wins points. Sitting overnight in the fridge only improves flavour so it’s perfect to make a day in advance. It can only be as hot as you’d like to make it. It’s multi-layered in flavour and rounded on the palate. In other words, it plays by the rules while celebrating its identity. And you’ll have a great time enjoying it.
Kerala Chicken Curry
1 kg chicken, either a whole skinned and jointed, or thighs (skinless, bone-in)
3 tsp coriander powder
1-2 teaspoons red chilli powder
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 tsp garam masala powder
7 cardamom pods, seeds ground to powder
a generous grinding of black pepper
2-3 tablespoons unflavoured oil or virgin coconut oil
5 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 inch piece of fresh ginger, crushed
2 onions, sliced finely
3-4 green chillies, slit in the middle (optional, or take out the seeds if you like)
6-7 curry leaves
3 teaspoons fresh coriander, finely chopped
2 ripe medium tomatoes, finely chopped
1/2 tsp of aniseed
1 Large potato, peeled and diced into 2 inch squares (optional)
Coconut oil for drizzling
2 green chillies, slit (optional)
Fresh curry leaves (optional)
Marinade the chicken pieces in a large bowl with the coriander powder, chilli powder, turmeric, garam masala, cardamom and black pepper. Set aside while you get the rest of the ingredients ready.
Heat the oil in a large saucepan with a lid over a medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the ginger and garlic, stirring until it turns golden, taking care not to burn the garlic.
Add the sliced onions, the slit green chillies, curry leaves and the fresh coriander and cook till the onions soften and turn golden.
Add the diced tomatoes to the pot and cook the masala for a while, until the tomatoes are completely soft and mushy and the masala turns to paste, slick with oil and glossy.
Put in the aniseeds and let it cook for another 30 seconds.
Place all the chicken with its spices into the pan and cook for 2 minutes to cook out the raw flavour of the spices.
Slowly add hot water to the pan, just enough to barely cover the chicken. Bring to the boil, add a touch of salt, stir well, turn out the heat to the lowest possible level. Place the lid a little askew on the pan, so as to let some of the liquid evaporate.
I find the curry takes around 45-60 minutes for meat on the bone at the lowest heat setting. Halfway through, take off the lid to allow the sauce to thicken. If you want potatoes, add it to the pot around 20 minutes before the chicken will be done.
Check the seasoning of your curry, adding more salt and pepper to suit. 5 minutes before serving, take the pan off the heat, put in the last green chillies (if using), curry leaves (optional) and drizzle with a tablespoon of coconut oil. Clamp on the lid and let it infuse before serving with rice and rotis.