You guys deserve much better than what I give you here.
I’m almost always smothering you with chocolate. Cake. Pie. Maybe some bread. I hardly give you any veg. And even less fruit. I can literally see my future. I’m obviously going to turn out to be one of those mothers who pack potato crisps and sugary drinks for their kid’s lunch, instead of something healthy and supremely boring like boiled carrot sticks. I break out into cold sweats at night, just thinking of what to feed you or how not to fail at taking care of my imaginary children. I open the door to my freezer and peer in at cling-film wrapped pieces of chocolate cake, realizing that I don’t really have anything to whip up lunch with. I’m not saying that you can’t have chocolate cake for lunch. Gasp! Who said that?! But if I’m ever going to grow up into an adult and learn to nourish children or learn to pack a suitcase decently, then I’ll have to do more than just frozen cake.
You’ve heard of her before. She, like me, grew up miles away from the kitchen. Our grandmothers knew how to cook. They just preferred not having us near to the open gas flame. We grew up the same way; talking a whole lot about what we eat and see other people eat but just didn’t bother with learning the process. Our contribution was in the form of chopping and prepping veg for our mothers. We were good at that. By the age of twenty-three we could burn water with style but we could also julienne tomatoes like we’d been doing it all our lives. I started to cook about five years back, at the end of my last year in college. She started to cook a little before that when her mother, my aunt, was diagnosed with breast cancer. A vile disease that took its toll on the family and kept her away from the kitchen. Her daughter took over the cooking, and though in the beginning it seemed to her that it was more like a duty she was performing, Arpi fell in love with cooking. We both did. And while I found solace in bags of flour and clouds of sugar, she can be almost always be found standing over a pot of curry.
Like this chicken masala I’m going to talk about.
With a non-dramatic name like “chicken masala”, you’re kept wondering what you’d be getting. I’ll let you in on a secret: even thoroughbred Indians don’t really know the recipe for Chicken Masala. I mean, technically, isn’t every chicken curry Chicken Masala? We’re dousing the chicken in cooked spices or masala, so hello?
The thing about most Indian women who’ve spent most of their lives in the kitchen, is that, anytime they’re asked for a recipe they’ll personally make sure to go into intricate details of techniques and sourcing of ingredients till they’re completely sure you have all the information. There have been times, complete strangers on trains or planes have forced me to write down their recipes whether I want to or not. Every tiny detail with care. I think everyone wants their voices to be out there.
I asked around, you know, about Chicken Masala. Seeing that it has simple name, I expected a popular recipe, something solid and easy to follow. But that didn’t work out.
Everyone I asked came up with a different recipe. Some start with sauteeing onions, other starts with browning marinated chicken. There’s a popular recipe for Chicken Masala that employs the softening powers of yogurt. Other less popular ones employ lemon juice or vinegar. A Punjabi suggested adding heavy cream to the curry at the end for a luscious finish to the dish. And there was another suggestion that highlighted the merits of pureed cashews to fatten up the gravy. A week back, however, I found a spot of luck. For dinner at Arpi’s place, she was serving Chicken Masala. Along with fluffed pulav, raita and potato floss.There’s no special story here. Her Chicken Masala was just that, Chicken Masala. It was fork tender white meat, attributed to the vinegar in the marinade, coated in a tangy sauce made of blanched and pureed tomatoes. Browned Garlic and onions made the gravy slightly smoky and a green chili chopped and stirred in right at the end left the curry fragrant with a heat that only fresh chili can impart, a heat that hits the back of your throat after you’ve gulped down your first forkful. But the best part, was the masala. I was sort of expecting that so no surprises there. I’m telling you now, that you need this chicken masala in your life.
The masala was made up of toasted nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, black cardamom and flowers of mace, ground into a semi-fine powder. Mixed in with a couple of tablespoons of vinegar and salt, it makes for a near perfect marinade for chicken. I can imagine marinading meat in it…or even sturdy fish. In fact, I can imagine tossing a variety of summer veggies in this marinade and roasting them. That would be lovely with some bread and cold butter. But we’re talking chicken here. And on that subject, I couldn’t actually get a photo of the finished product, but I do have a photograph for you. I know you deserve better, but I hope you’re OK with raw chicken.
as told to me by Arpita Sengupta
Nutmeg can be overpowering, but don’t be scared. Take a full-sized nutmeg and crush it under a pestle till you get a pea-sized piece.
The chicken pieces can be boneless if you want, but keep in mind that chicken cooked on the bones taste much richer. If you’re going with boneless pieces try using chicken thighs rather than breasts.
If your prefer the heat from the chilies to be milder then scrape off the seeds before chopping them. I, however, like it hot, so I’ve kept the seeds intact. Make sure to add the chopped chilies after the curry’s been taken off the heat.
Milk is the option I prefer. It adds a subtle mellowness to the pungency of the spices while keeping the curry light. Cream, however, can be used if you’re aiming to impress guests with something richer.
1 black cardamom pod
1/2 inch piece of cinnamon
Pea-sized piece of nutmeg [see head note]
2 tsp of fennel seeds
2 flowers of mace
3 tbsp of white vinegar
1 tsp of ground turmeric
750-800 gm of chicken, cut into curry pieces [see head note]
2 large tomatoes
2 tbsps of vegetable oil [llike canola, sunnflower oil, etc]
4 cloves of garlic
1 large red onion, sliced thinly
1/4 cup of full-fat milk or heavy cream
Salt, to taste [we're low on sodium in this house, so we used about 1 tsp]
2 tsps of white granulated sugar
1-2 green chilies, chopped [see head note]
Chopped coriainder and pulav, optional
In a non-stick frying pan dry-toast cardamon, cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel seeds, cloves and the mace flowers, till they start giving off a nutty aroma. Take them off the heat before the fennel seeds start to colour. This will take less than a minute on high heat. Blitz the mixture in a blender to turn it into a semi-fine powder. You could use a mortar and pestle for this if you want. The masala mix should not be coarse at all, but it shouldn’t be as super-fine as shop-bought spices. In a large bowl, mix the masala with vinegar and turmeric and coat the chicken with the marinade. You can wrap the bowl with cling film and let it stay overnight in the refrigerator. But the recipe is seriously flexible. if you’re pressed for time, a marination-period of 1/2 to 2 hours will also do.
When it’s time to make the curry, make criss-cross slits on the head of the tomatoes and cook them for five minutes in boiling water. The water should just cover the heads of the tomatoes. After they’re cooked, reserve about 1/4 cup of the water the tomatoes were boiled in. Drain the rest of the water away and blitz the tomatoes, skin and all, into a puree.
Heat a non-stick pan and add the oil. When the oil is hot enough, saute the garlic and onions on medium heat, till they’ve browned well at the edges. Reserve the oil they were cooked in. Fish the garlic and onion out and blitz to form a paste.
Re-heat the garlic-onion infused oil in a heavy pot and add the marinated chicken along with the residual liquid at the bottom. Cook the chicken on high heat till all the pieces are white on the outside and the pot has a few bits stuck to it. Add in the onion-garlic paste, tomato puree, the reserved water from boiling the tomatoes and the milk/cream. Stir everything well together. Cover and cook on medium-low heat for fifteen minutes. Take the cover off and stir in about a teaspoon or two of salt. Mix and conduct a taste check, Adjust the amount of salt or sugar as necessary. Take the largest/thickest piece of chicken and make a small cut in its center to check if it’s cooked through. If it is,continue to the next step. If not, then cover and cook for two-three more minutes.
The curry is meant to be dry without too much liquid or gravy to it. Mind you, the chicken pieces will give off a fair amount of liquid themselves. At the end of your taste check, if there’s too much liquid in the pot, turn the heat to high and cook uncovered for a few minutes till the liquid reduces to the consistency you want. Take the pot off heat and stir in the chopped chilies.
I would seriously suggest making the curry at least a day before you plan to serve it. Day-old curry is always better. Take my word for it. Garnish with freshly chopped coriander and fluffy pulav.