a tale in which I learn to make a gloriously haphazard chicken curry

chicken curry with rice - steve woods
I have always been interested in authenticity in cooking. It's not that I have some kind of puritanical aversion to adapting a recipe, (heaven forbid), but if I am going to modify one then I do rather like to know what rules I am breaking.

When Maher, the rather elegant mother of a friend of mine,  kindly invited a bunch of us girls to lunch, for an afternoon of learning about and cooking several curries together with the promise of some red wine quaffing thrown in, I jumped at the chance to take part. If only to absorb all of the above in copious quantities, in the interests of authenticity of course.

On the menu that day were cauliflower bhajis, onion pakoras, potato nibbles (which could have been pakoras or bhajis), a raita, which were followed by what I think may have been a Punjabi curry, with kitchiri (rice and lentils) and a wonderful spicy lentil dal. This was home cooking at it's best.

Now if I sound a bit hazy about some of the details and lack a little precision in the following chicken curry recipe, well . . . ”a little bit of this, a little bit of that, darling,” Maher would reply languidly, waving her arms gracefully and sipping a little more wine, when we asked exactly what she was adding to various pans. I tried to observe carefully, really I did, as we all huddled into the kitchen and around the stove. I tried to write it all down as accurately as possible, but what with all the food, the laughter, the wine and the fact that I couldn’t read much of my handwriting the next day (note to self: next time take a Dictaphone), some of the recipes are open to interpretation. Which only seems to prove the cooking adage that you should go with what you like. If you like more chopped coriander, use it. If you prefer more garlic, go with that. Trust your instincts and your taste.

And if I couldn't work out the actual provenance of the recipe either, well Maher was born in India, grew up in Pakistan and came to England as a young woman. I think Saudi Arabia was mentioned somewhere in there too. You can see my problem. But not to worry. While wars may have been started on a shakier grasp of the world map than mine, the geography is actually irrelevant; the end result delicious. (Although it occurs to me that perhaps we don't need diplomacy and the United Nations, just wonderful home cooking and bucket-loads of wine. Just a thought).

Before cooking the chicken, you can get away with marinading it for a minimum of 30 minutes; I usually marinate mine overnight, in the fridge. The combination of spices and yoghurt adds an abundance of flavour and helps to tenderise the chicken so that when cooked it literally falls of the bone.

Maher also used a popular proprietary spice mix called Karahi Fry Gosht (see link below), which I couldn’t get hold of. But my local Asian shop did have a spice mix by the same manufacturer called Achar Gosht – traditionally used with pickles, so not really authentic for my needs, but I decided to be adventurous as I liked the sound of ingredients included. (It turned out to be bloody hot!) So think of this as an opportunity to experiment, even if it isn’t necessarily authentic. Use your own favourite spice blend (Seasoned Pioneers have an interesting selection).

So since first learning this recipe, I have made it several times, using different spice blends. The flavour is slightly altered each time, but I can guarantee absolutely delicious.

I do intend to write up the rest of the recipes, for pakoras, kitchiri and dal, et al. But I am having trouble translating my notes!

Serves 6
Skill level: Easy (but messy! Or maybe that was just us!

chicken curry:
c. 900g chicken legs (or thighs)
c. 300g natural yoghurt *
2 tbsp ginger-garlic paste (this can be replaced with a tablespoon each of fresh ginger and garlic, very finely chopped)
1 tbsp ghee (or butter)
1 x cinnamon stick
6 x cloves
4 x cardamom seeds, crushed
1 tsp x black mustard seeds
3-4 x onions, finely chopped (use English rather than Spanish onions as English onions have a stronger more oniony flavour, while the larger Spanish onions have a sweet mild flavour, which is wasted on a curry!)
1 tsp salt.

masala spice mix:
1 tbsp garam masala
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 tbsp Karahi Fry Gosht spice mix (optional)
1 tsp chilli powder (or to taste)

to serve:
fresh coriander, roughly chopped
fried onion

* Use tomatoes if omitting yoghurt instead.

  1. Skin the chicken legs (or thighs if using). A good tip is to hold the bony end of the leg with a piece of kitchen towel in one hand (it stops it from slipping), then with the other hand slide the skin off.
  2. Take a sharp knife and make 2 slashes across each piece of chicken. (This will allow the spices to really sink in and flavour the meat).
  3. Pour the spicy yoghurt mixture over the chicken and set aside to marinate. (You could leave it up to about 8 hours in the fridge. Alternatively at least 30 minutes will inject a bit of extra oomph into the chicken).
  4. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan (or a deep frying pan with a lid). When the oil is hot, add the ghee or butter if using. (Adding the butter last stops it from burning). Add the cinnamon stick, cloves, crushed cardamom seeds and black mustard seeds.
  5. When the mustard seeds begin to pop, add the chopped onions. Stir to coat in the oil. (At this stage, if you sprinkle the onions with salt, they will release liquid into the pan, which intensifies the flavour of the onion). Cook on a low-medium heat for up to 10 minutes, stirring every soften so that the onions don’t burn. It can take up to 10 minutes of slow cooking before the onions are fully softened.
  6. Add the chicken only (scraping off the marinade back into the bowl the chicken was sitting in). Stir to coat the chicken in the onion-spice mixture. Cook for about 3 minutes on each side until the chicken is very lightly browned.
  7. Tip the rest of the marinade into the pan and stir to coat. You can swish out the bowl the marinade was sitting in with a little water in order to get all the last bits of marinade and add this to the pan.
  8. Stir again and check the consistency. At this stage it should be slightly runny so you may need to add some extra water. (If you add too much, this can always be simmered off during cooking).
  9. Cook the chicken for 40 minutes to 1 hour.
  10. Serve topped with fresh coriander and fried onions.
  • Very good served with the kitchiri (rice with lentils), raita (yoghurt with mint) and tarka dal (spicy lentils).

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