Once I began to live on my own, I cooked via trial and error quite a bit, especially when I was in college and was at a loss for precise measurements and cooking techniques. I learned how to make murgir jhol, not through a recipe, but rather by “helping.” That is, I stood next to my mother and when she said “stir,” I stirred. I added spices by measuring them in the palm of my hand while she eyeballed them and called out “stop, that’s enough.” Then my palm would tilt and the spices would go into the pot. And so it went for years, my palming and stirring and my mother calling out the instructions. And there I stood, talking and tasting, occasionally interested, occasionally inattentive.
I’ve been looking at recipes for chicken curry. They’re ubiquitous in the blogosphere and in Indian cookbooks. And each one is different. My variation is slightly different than my mother’s. And truth be told, my own varation,well . . . it tends to vary. The one given below is a homey, stew-like dish with intense chicken flavor, perfect for the cold weeks and long nights.
A few tips; use restraint when it comes to the Indian spices – 1 teaspoon each of ground cumin and coriander really is enough for 4 pounds of chicken. Use a little restaint with the yogurt too; otherwise the chicken will take on a slightly tangy note. This flavor may be delightful for some, others might find it asynchronous with their expectations for chicken curry. No matter how much or how little onion is used, make sure it is thoroughly sauteed before adding the chicken. And lastly, everything here can be adjusted, a little more of this, a little less of that – one only needs to remember two things for this dish to be successful: don’t overcook or undercook your chicken and season properly.
It’s not at all difficult to make. For everyone who asked, here it is:
Standing Ovation Chicken Curry
This recipe serves 4-6 people
1 cut-up chicken, 3 ½ to 4 lbs, including bones. Alternately, any combination of boneless or bone-in drumsticks and thighs may be used. I’ve also used chicken breasts, bone-in and boneless, and have removed them early to prevent their overcooking.
½ cup plain low fat yogurt
1 medium sized tomato
1 medium sized onion
1-2 tablespoons sour cream
4 cloves garlic, minced, or pressed through a garlic press (approx. 1 clove per pound of chicken, more or less)
1-inch piece of fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
1 stick cinnamon, broken into large pieces (about 3-4 inches)
2 bay leaves or tej leaves
1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
Unflavored oil, such as canola, ghee
Salt to taste
Optional: 2 dried chili peppers or 1 fresh green chili
Optional: A pinch of sugar for balance
Behind the scenes
Clean and rinse the chicken, making sure to remove the skin. Pat the chicken pieces dry and put them into a bowl. Add the yogurt and make sure the chicken is evenly coated. Let the chicken sit for at least 1 hour. Marinate the chicken overnight in the fridge if you wish, but I find that 1 hour does the trick.
While the chicken is marinating, chop the onion and tomato in a medium dice and put into a blender, along with 1-2-tablespoons of water. Blend just until the onion becomes liquefied and then stop the blender immediately. Do not keep the blender running just so that the mixture will be extra smooth. Here’s why:
Blending the temperamental onion can be a bit tricky, because the onion, when over puréed, becomes extremely bitter. So bitter that it must be thrown out and the process started over. How will you know if it’s too bitter? Well, if unsure, you may have to taste it, especially if you suspect that it might be over blended. And we all know about the sublime taste of a liquefied raw onion and tomato potion. Blend until just liquified, which happens quickly, about 5-10 seconds.
Act I: Flavoring the oil
Add ¼ cup vegetable oil, more or less, to a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot. To the oil, add the bay leaves, the cinnamon stick, the fennel and whole cumin seeds, and, if using them, the dried chili peppers. Heat the spices gently in the oil. They have heated thoroughly when one can smell the cinnamon in the oil, about 2 minutes. For richer chicken curry, substitute part or all of the oil with ghee.
Act II: Preparing the sauce
To the flavored oil, add the blended onion and tomato mixture. The oil should be hot enough so that it sizzles when the liquid is added but not so hot that it spatters. Stir gently to incorporate. While the tomato-onion puree is cooking, add the ginger and garlic, continue stirring. Stir constantly – this process will take some time. After 20-30 minutes, the mixture will reduce and the oil will begin to separate. It’s consistency will be that of a thick onion confit, sticky. When it does, add the sour cream, ground cumin, coriander, turmeric and salt. Stir to incorporate completely, reducing again until the spice mixture forms a smooth, slightly thick paste and the oil starts to separate again from the spices — another 5-7 minutes.
Act III: Grand finale
Turn the heat to medium-high. Add the chicken, and stir to incorporate both the spice mixture and the chicken, cook for 7-10 minutes, until the chicken is bubbling. Season with salt. Add 1 cup of water, more or less depending on whether you want a thick sauce or a brothy stew, and bring the chicken curry to a boil again. Turn down the heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 35-45 minutes, or until chicken is done throughout. Check seasonings and adjust if necessary. Finis. Serve with rice or roti
Note: If using boneless chicken, cook sauce thoroughly before adding chicken, since the chicken will require less time to cook. Boneless, skinless thighs cook in 20-35 minutess and breasts cook within 20 minutes.
Variation with potatoes:
Some would say that Bengali chicken curry always contains potatoes, and it’s not a proper chicken curry without them, and I have omitted them in the version above. To make this dish with potatoes, you’ll need two, maybe three, potatoes. Quarter them or cut into eighths, depending on preference. While the chicken is simmering, fry the potatoes with a little salt in a separate pan until cooked halfway-through and golden brown on the outside. Add to the curry when the chicken has approximately 15-20 minutes left to cook.