It is everywhere. It is one that is many. Yet it is not mystical. It is just chicken curry. One of the world’s greatest culinary paradoxes is how the world’s most boring bird produces an array of gastronomic wonders. Chicken flesh on its own is tasteless, except its country cousin, whose meat is stringy, slightly smelly and tangy.
The truth is that chicken flesh is versatile. The banal bird has been most obliging, perhaps, because its tastelessness is its tabula rasa. Chicken curry speaks to the versatility of Indian village cooks who can conjure up rustic chicken dishes with just ground turmeric and ginger paste, green/red chillies and a generous dash of peppercorn. For generations, chefs from across the world made delicacies from chicken, mainly at the insistence of their royal masters. But what comes first—chicken or curry?
The etymology of curry is the South Indian ‘kari’ which translates to gravy. Needless to say, you need curry powder to make curry—a sauce that started its piquant travels around 3000 BC from South India. It was traced to Mesopotamia in 1700 BC, where chicken curry was eaten with Mediterranean bread. The soul of curry powder is spice: turmeric, cumin seeds, coriander, mustard, salt, bay leaf, powders of cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper and red chillies. The curry’s flavourful finale is the eponymous leaf, without which no Southern dish is authentic—curry leaves.
Chicken curry is a medium with different messages. Punjabis, who love their Butter chicken from Lahore, are bemused by South and East Indians using coconut in their curry—shredded golden crescents toasted in ghee, spicy brown ground paste with flecks of yellow and a subtle hierarchy of milks. Even the cooking medium is its own message. For Malayalis, it is coconut oil. In Bengal, it is mustard oil. Saraswath Brahmins make Kori gassi in cow’s ghee. Andhra chicken curry has the fire of Guntur chillies. The Kongunadu kozhi curry of Tamil Nadu is deeply marinated.
Indian chicken curry is influenced by traders and settlers like the Arabs and the French, and invaders such as the Ummayids, Turks, Mughals, British and the Portuguese—Goa’s Chicken Xacuti. Shame on ancient India’s food writers that the first chicken curry was recorded only in the 1500s, when Emperor Akbar’s Hindu cooks conceived Murgh musallam, which is not chicken curry. Legend says its recipe was inspired by Asoka’s peacock curry, which the British then copied.
The next documented Indian chicken curry was English—the Country Captain Chicken made in the 1790s in Madras. Meanwhile, in the United Provinces, with little to do after Robert Clive put the nawabs of Oudh on a generous stipend, the kings turned to perfecting the arts. They had good taste, pun intended, in chicken, too. The gourmand Wajid Ali Shah, a redoubtable chef, used ricotta cheese with flattened chicken breasts to create a dish he named after himself.
Chicken curry is the most underrated Indian export; Indians who migrated to Africa, West Indies, Fiji, Sri Lanka et al contributed to special versions, which incorporated traditional culinary elements. Food writers mistakenly claim that today’s chicken curry is based on the British chicken stew made with fowl taken from India. The singularity of the dish is that there is no one chicken curry. The dish preens in red, crimson and pale turmeric, and rejoices in gold with shades of white. To give it a rich redness, add Kashmiri red chilli powder.
Saffron gives it a golden sheen. Its versatility is admirable—cook it with or without onions, with or without tomatoes (a British import), with yogurt or milk, perfumed with rose water or slaked in butter. Ginger and cumin elevate its taste. Historically, the most popular curry by British and American cooks was made with chicken. Many recipes in these countries are from cookbooks of the 1800s. Today’s chefs are hard-pressed for original interpretations of chicken curry. Their challenge is to reconcile traditional Indian gastronomic instincts with global tastes. Chicken curry has all the answers.
Daab Chicken by Chef Vikramjit Roy
● Chicken leg B/L (without skin): 500gm
● Tender coconut with flesh: 4
● Coconut milk: 1 cup
● Coconut water (from the same tender coconut): 2 cups
● Kasundi (Bengali mustard paste): 2 tbsp
● Garlic paste: 2 ½ tbsp
● Ginger paste: 2 tbsp
● Onion paste: 7 tbsp
● Tomato paste: 6 tbsp
● Green chilli: 4
● Dry red chilli: 2
● Bay leaf: 2
● Cinnamon stick: 1
● Green cardamom: 2
● Bengali garam masala powder: 1 ½ tsp
● Turmeric powder: 1 tbsp
● Red chilli powder: 1 tbsp
● Cumin powder: 1 tbsp
● Wheat flour: 6 tbsp
● Mustard oil: 6 tbsp
● Desi ghee: 1 ½ tbsp
● Sugar: 1 ½ tbsp
● Salt to taste
● Wash the tender coconut, strain the water and scoop up the upper part, leaving the flesh as is. Reserve for use later.
● Marinate the chicken with 1 ½ tsp garlic paste, 1 tsp ginger paste, 2 tsp onion paste, ½ tbsp turmeric powder, ½ tsp chilli powder, 1 tbsp mustard oil and salt to taste. Leave it for 5-6 hours in the fridge.
● Heat mustard oil in a pan till smoking point and fry the chicken in small batches till the flesh becomes milky white. Lower the temperature and let the chicken gently poach for around 8-10 minutes. Strain.
● In the same pan, add desi ghee. Once heated, add green cardamom, dry red chilli, bay leaf and cinnamon to temper.
● Add onion paste and cook till it becomes translucent. Add ginger and garlic paste, tomato paste and cook till the oil separates.
● Add red chilli powder, turmeric powder, cumin powder and cook for 2 minutes. The Kasundi goes in now. Immediately put in half of the coconut milk. Cook it through
for 6-7 minutes.
● Season it with salt and sugar; add the Bengali garam masala and the remaining coconut milk
● Add the chicken to it and let the sauce reduce by half
● Pre-heat the oven at 185 degrees C
for 15 minutes
● Make a tight dough with flour and water.
● Fill the coconuts with the chicken curry, leaving some space from the top. Put in a slit green chilli on the top and seal it with the dough.
● Lay the coconuts on a tray and put them in the oven for 45 minutes
● Serve the entire coconut shell on the table. Open the dough seal when ready to eat and pour it over hot steaming rice. Drizzle a tbsp of ghee.
(Roy is Co-Founder/Producer at A Sirius Hospitality-Hello Panda, Park Street Rolls & Biryani, Ginger Garlic & Meetha Kuchh! He was earlier with ITC Hotels and the Taj)