Sunday, May 17, 2009

Malabari Chicken Korma: Rich with Coconut

It's been busy recently with the "day job" and more so with the catering by the family restaurant in Athens as the end of the school year brought receptions, departmental parties, "exit shows," and even a wedding. It should now slow down for a while. During the rush, I didn't get to work on my blog postings.

Here's a curry from our days in Malaysia in the 70s that I learned from an old chef, a Muslim man from the Malabar Coast of South India. His ramshackle thatch and tarpaulin-roofed open restaurant nestled under a huge Flamboyant tree across the street from the Institute in Kuala Lumpur where I worked. Lunches were served on banana leaves and eaten with the fingers. His food was uncommonly tasty, cheap and different.

When he wasn't too busy, I would ask him about recipes. He had nothing written down. It was all just in his memory. But he said if I were willing to be at his place at 5 in the morning when he cooked for the day, I was free to watch and ask about anything he was cooking. I did so on a number of occasions.

I made this recently for the staff at St. Bart's. It's in my memory. (But from time to time we also make pretty much this same curry at our restaurant in Athens from a volume version of the recipe that I recorded.) Technically it's a korma, ancestrally from Muslim cuisine, rather than a curry. But unlike typical North Indian kormas, it has neither cream nor ground cashews for richness. The South Indian substitute is the omnipresent coconut, coconut milk like in most South Indian (and Thai and Malay) curries, but also toasted coconut pounded into the spice mixture.

This rich dish is surprisingly inexpensive, though a little fussy to make. It uses chicken thighs, skin removed, but bone-in. Plus it has potato.

It should be served with unsalted white rice. The recipe is sufficient for 6 people, with leftovers.

Malabari Chicken Korma with Coconut

1/2 cup dry shredded unsweetened coconut
1 very large or 2 medium-large onions, finely chopped
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 bay leaf
4 whole cardamoms
3/4-inch fresh ginger, skin scraped off, thinly sliced
3 large cloves garlic
4 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
3/4 teaspoon ground fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 (14-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk (put remainder in zip-lock bag and freeze)
1 can water
3 pounds chicken thighs
1 pound potatoes
2 teaspoons salt plus to taste
Cilantro for topping

In large frying pan, dry-fry shredded coconut over medium heat, shaking and stirring frequently until evenly pale golden in color and fragrant. Either pound this very finely in a mortar and pestle or puree it in a food processor or blender, adding just enough water to have it puree well. Set coconut aside.

Fry onion, bay leaf and cardamom slowly in oil in large pot, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, either pound in the mortar the sliced ginger and garlic, or mince them very finely. Measure spices.

Pull skin off thighs (make broth with it for another use). With cleaver, cut thighs in two or three pieces each, through the bone. Peel potatoes, and cut in 1-inch chunks and place them in water so they don't brown.

When onion is turning dark golden (caramelized), stir in ginger-garlic mixture, and fry, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes. Add pureed, toasted coconut plus the spices, and fry, scraping the bottom frequently about 2 minutes.

Add coconut milk plus water and bring to a boil. Add cut chicken, drained potatoes, and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until chicken and potato are tender, 20-30 minutes. Add another teaspoon salt when cooking is partially done. Add a little water, as needed, to keep the sauce thickly soupy.

Taste sauce, and add salt as needed, making the sauce slightly salty because the meat and potato will soak up more.

When meat and potatoes are tender, remove pan from heat. Let sit, covered, 10 minutes. Stir and taste, checking salt again.

It's best to make the curry ahead and reheat to serve. Check salt. Serve over unsalted Basmati or other long-grained rice. Sprinkle generously with coarsely chopped cilantro.

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