A few weeks ago, I wrote this post about roti jala and promised to share my mum's chicken curry recipe. I looked back at that post and saw that it was from about six weeks ago - WHAT?! How time flies. Every week I said to myself "time to post that curry recipe" and every week it just got away from me. I made roti jala with chicken curry two nights ago for a visiting food journalist who was here to write a little profile piece on me and as I sat down to dine with her, it weighed heavily on me that I still hadn't posted this recipe. In fairness to myself, what you must all realize is that none of these dishes have "recipes". My mum never cooks from a recipe - unless she's trying something new and foreign to her, like macaroni and cheese!! Rich curries, divine rendangs, flavorsome spiced rices, fish cakes (we call them cutlets), and enticing vegetable dishes are cooked by feel, sight and smell drawing from years of experience in the kitchen. Mum still lives in Malaysia, so here's a typical phone call between us:
Me: Ma, how do you make that Indian green veggie, you know - the one with the coconut?
Mum: Oh, ok - first you put oil, then garlic, ginger and onions. Also put some mustard and venthium (fenugreek seed) and if you want also put dried chilly. Then you fry fry for a little while.
Me: (Writing furiously) Ok....... ok and then?
Mum: Then you put the veggie in - must cut small small, ok?
Mum: Then...... fry a bit, then add some water. Put some kunyit (turmeric) and some coconut. Mix and close. So easy!!
And that's pretty much how she passes "recipes" on to me. The crucial part is the "so easy!' at the very end - mum has always been wonderfully nurturing and supportive of young cooks - perhaps that's why my two brothers and I all have a great time in the kitchen and love to cook! Thanks to all those years I spent in her kitchen watching, learning and doing, it is easy. For the purposes of a recipe though - haha, can you imagine what this dish could look like if one had no idea what it was supposed to look like? Is it a stew? Is it dry? Is it mushy? Should the greens be crunchy? There is great potential for kitchen disasters, tummy aches and budding chefs' disappointment and despair.
Back to the topic at hand. I wrote this curry recipe out sometime last year for one of my cooking classes. Here's my mum's chicken curry - the one that goes so well with roti jala, or over some plain white rice with a yummy vegetable dish on the side. Hopefully not the veggie dish described above!!
Mum's Chicken Curry (serves 4 - 6)
1 whole chicken cut into small pieces (or 2 whole boneless breasts cut into pieces, if you prefer)
3 tablespoons coconut oil
6 large garlic cloves - chopped
2-inch piece of ginger - julienned
1 large onion - sliced
2 cinnamon sticks
5 cardamom pods
Small handful of curry leaves (optional)
1 can of coconut milk (or 2 cups if you have fresh-squeezed coconut milk)
4 large potatoes - peeled and quartered
3 tablespoons curry powder*
1 tablespoon chilli powder (or to taste)
Salt and pepper to taste
In a deep saucepan or dutch oven, heat the coconut oil (or oil of your choice) over medium high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, onions, cinnamon, cardamom, curry leaves and half a teaspoon of salt. Stir until fragrant and the onions are translucent.
Add the cut up chicken and stir well to combine. Keep stirring to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot - if you let the bottom get sticky now, you'll have all sorts of problems later and end up with a curry that has that not-so-lovely burnt flavor!! Cook for 5 minutes.
In a separate bowl, combine the curry powder, chilly powder and enough water to form a thick paste. (Please read my notes at the end on curry and chilly powders.) Add this paste to the pot and stir well working to coat all the chicken with the paste. Keep stirring for 10 minutes - the curry paste will release its rich, savory, pungent aroma and bring your neighbors to your door. Don't answer your doorbell now - you need to baby this curry so it doesn't stick to the bottom. In my mum's words "scrape the bottom of the pot so it doesn't stick". This is especially true now - all these dry ingredients could burn and stick really easily at this point.
Add the coconut milk and half a cup to a cup of water, depending on how thick you like your curry gravy. Stir to combine, and now you can answer the door, make yourself a drink and stop for a breather. Let it cook for about ten minutes or until it comes to a slow boil. You never want a curry to come to a rolling boil ever - especially if you're cooking with coconut milk. Boiling at too high a temperature will make your coconut milk separate and curdle - not a good look!
In about 20 minutes check the potatoes for doneness. When you can cut through a piece easily with a knife, your curry is done. Taste the curry, add salt and pepper to taste.
A note on curry powders: There isn't one standardized curry powder - rather, every region of India has it's own variation of this wonderful combination of ground spices. Before large spice mills came into being, most households had their own unique recipe for curry powder - this is what makes eating curries in different homes such a lovely adventure. No two curries are alike and even among my mum and her sisters, the curries are different. The main ingredients are cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, cloves, nutmeg, fennel and turmeric. West Indian curries tend to be more yellow and include allspice - a spice I never encountered as a child in my mother's kitchen except for the little red and white can of McCormick Allspice which she used for her annual Christmas fruit cake. Kalustyan's has a wonderful array of curry powders to choose from, as does Whole Foods. Regardless of what curry powder you have on hand or where it comes from, this recipe delivers a beautifully flavorful and delicious curry.
3 tablespoons of curry powder is a good place to start for one whole chicken - as you gain experience with cooking this curry, you can adjust the amount to suit your taste. More curry powder will result in a thicker, gravy-like curry. As for the chilli powder, start with one tablespoon and adjust for your needs - if you like it hotter add more. If you like spicy but not hot, use less. Personally, I love a gorgeous red curry, the sight of which tells me I'm in for a good hot dish!