By Almas Khan
Author of Poppadom Preach
As a passionate home cook, I’m in the kitchen six days out of seven. I believe cooking should be fun, not looked upon as a chore. I learned to cook at a very early age, and spent years experimenting, trying to figure out which spices worked with which sort of meat, how to layer the flavors, and how to create dishes everybody wanted to eat. I decided my food didn’t have to be the way my mother made it, or her mother before her. I interpreted the styles and the methods and then threw the traditional way out with the dish water.
When I was growing up, it was a lot harder to find some of the ground spices we take for granted today. Then, the need to make your own spice mixes was very important—every family had its own secret recipe. Ours consisted of whole coriander seeds, cumin seeds, black cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, and cloves. We didn’t have a spice mill, so all our dried ingredients had to be pounded into powder by hand in a mortar and pestle, and more often than not it was one of my chores. I grew to hate garam masala, banning it in my house.
Anybody who can turn on the stove can cook these curries. If you want to prepare smaller or larger quantities than those I’ve listed, all you have to do is adjust the spices to suit your tastes. It’s all about experimenting, tweaking things until you’re happy with them—doing it your way is often the best way. You don’t even have to use all the ingredients I’ve listed; if you want to add your own, go ahead. Whatever you decide to do, just have fun and be happy cooking!
Simple Chicken Curry
1 whole chicken, cleaned and chopped into medium-size chunks
2 large onions, finely chopped
4 fresh tomatoes (or 1/2 tin of chopped tomatoes, if you don’t have fresh)
Fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
4 small green chiles, finely chopped (any kind you prefer—or chili pepper flakes can be substituted)
6 cloves of garlic, crushed (leave whole for subtler flavor)
Tomato ketchup (optional)
Plain or Greek-style yogurt
Along with the fresh ingredients you can also use some dried spices. I normally use the following:
—Salt to taste
—1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
—1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
—1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
—Black pepper (about six grinds of the pepper mill)
—I never use garam masala in my cooking. This is just a personal preference as I don’t like the gritty taste it gives the food.
Now here’s the fun part.
In a good-sized pan add a mixture of olive oil and sunflower oil. How much you want to use is up to you: I tend to use 7 tablespoons of olive and 4 of sunflower oil. It’s OK to add more, as you can always drain it off once the curry is cooked. Heat the oil and when it starts to sizzle, add the onions and grind in the black pepper.
Let the onions turn golden brown. Add your tomatoes and your spices—all of them need to go in at this point. Cook for about 10 minutes on medium heat, stirring constantly so the mix doesn’t burn. Add a little water to prevent ingredients sticking to the base of the pot.
Next add the chicken and stir until it is coated with the spice mixture. Once the chicken starts to cook add a squirt of lemon juice—this stops the meat from breaking up. Now add a generous squirt of tomato ketchup. By now, the chicken should have lost its pinkness.
Turn the heat up and continue to stir the pot. You will need to do so until the oil starts to separate from the rest of the ingredients, approximately 10 minutes. Don’t forget to add small amounts of water to prevent ingredients from sticking.
Once the oil separates, you can test the spice level of your curry. Season to taste; if you feel you may have added too much seasoning, don’t worry: That’s what the yogurt is for. Add 3 tablespoons of yogurt to the pot and stir. This will dilute the flavor and gives the curry a really fresh, clean taste.
Depending on what else you want to eat with your curry, you can cook it to a thin sauce by adding two cups of boiling water, turning the heat down low, and simmering for 20 minutes. Or you can eat it just the way it is, on the thicker side. It’s very important that the chicken is cooked all the way through; if it’s still even slightly pink, simmer it a little longer. It’s dangerous to eat chicken that isn’t cooked all the way through.
Garnish curry with fresh cilantro and serve with rice, couscous, or naan.
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Photos courtesy of Almas Khan