Monday, August 11, 2008

South Indian Chicken Curry: Recalled from Malaysia

Saturday, it was time to make a meal again for Christina's staff meeting on Monday. That same day, I cooked Thai noodles for a visitor, leaving me 3/4 can of Thai coconut milk. Putting the two things together made me think of the South Indian curries we used to get in Malaysia. In particular, I recalled the richly delicious meat curries made by the Malabari Muslim cooks at the many small (and very inexpensive) restaurants and under-the-tarpaulin outdoor places in Kuala Lumpur, our home for nearly eight years. To get ahead of my story, the curry turned out well, was a hit with the rector and staff at St. Barts, and led me to put down in the blog what I made.

The curries from the various South Indian ethnic groups were based on coconut milk, very different from the northern Indian curries that are more familiar to Americans. The Malabar Muslims were free to cook with meat, even beef, though not with pork. The Tamil Hindus were largely vegetarian, and for those who did eat meat it was limited to lamb or chicken. And the Kerala and Goanese Christians, yet another South Indian community in Malaysia, could make their curries of any meat, even pork and wild boar. My favorite overall of the three cuisines was the Muslim one, because of the richness, yet the simplicity, of their curries and their biriani rice. And even more because of their multi-layered flat bread, roti canai. (We still get that [pronounced 'ro-tee 'chan-eye] in Atlanta, by the way, accompanied by an authentically flavored curry gravy for dipping, at the Penang, an excellent Malaysian restaurant on Buford Highway.)

The original curry would have been made with cut-up chicken, including the bones, though not the skin. This makes it more intense in flavor than with the boneless chicken that I now use because of convenience to the cook and the diner (but I use more chicken than they would, making it about even). The spice, ground fennel, may be a little hard to find (though our Dekalb Farmer's Market carries it), but whole fennel seeds are fairly readily available and if necessary you can grind them in a mortar and pestle or in a small coffee grinder used for spices. The curry leaves (kariopillay, or kari patta) that would typically have been used are hard to find here, so I have substituted cilantro leaves, which are more typical in North Indian curries.

Here, based on my recall, is a Malabari-style chicken and potato curry. The recipe should serve about six, but it is worth doubling, since then a full can of coconut milk will be used and the leftovers are great on later days. Serve with Basmati rice or other long-grained rice, unsalted (see my blog posting of 1/26/08 about cooking great rice).

South Indian Chicken Curry Tim

1 fairly large or two medium onions
3 tablespoons canola oil (the original would have been coconut oil)
2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes
1/2 inch fresh thick ginger or more if thinner
2 large cloves garlic
3 teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon ground fennel
4 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon (or more to taste) cayenne
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/2 (16-ounce) can Thai unsweetened coconut milk (freeze the remainder for another use)
Water as needed
1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thigh meat
1/4 cup lightly packed cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

Chop the onion(s) and fry with the oil in a heavy pot, stirring frequently until softened. Meanwhile, wash, but it's not necessary to peel, the potatoes and cut them in 1-inch cubes. Add them to the onions, and fry the two together, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pot, until the onions are starting to turn golden. Lightly peel the ginger and slice it thinly. Pound it in a mortar and pestle with the garlic, or mince the two together extremely finely. Lower the heat under the onions and potatoes and stir in the ginger-garlic mixture for 2 minutes. Stir in the dry spices and salt, and stir while frying them in for 1 minute or until fragrant.

Add the coconut milk plus enough water to reach the top of the potatoes. Simmer about two minutes. Cut the chicken into 2-inch squares, after trimming away tough parts and excess fat. Stir the chicken into the curry mixture, and add enough water just to come up to the level of the chicken. (This curry should have a sauce with the consistency of medium cream.) Simmer, stirring frequently until the chicken and the potatoes are tender, about ten minutes. Taste the sauce as it's cooking and add enough salt to make it slightly salty (the chicken and potatoes will soak a little more up). Remove the curry from the heat and stir in the chopped cilantro.

Let sit at least 10 minutes, covered, before serving. But the curry is tastier if refrigerated then later reheated to serve. Check the salt and adjust, if needed. Serve over unsalted white rice.


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