When I ordered The Essential Andhra Cookbook: with Hyderabadi and Telengana Specialities by Bilkees I. Latif I didn’t know much about this part of India (I even had to check on the map…) apart from the extensive use of my beloved curry leaves by its inhabitants. Now, having tested only one recipe from Ms Latif’s humble looking book, I know I have found a precious addition to my cooking library. This chicken dish might seem similar to any another Indian curry, but it is really unique. Like many Indian dishes I know, it’s packed with spices and laced with creamy coconut flavours, but it has a unique, clean touch and a tantalising new aroma I got quickly addicted to.
If you have never tasted curry leaves, they are small, highly aromatic and grow on Murraya koenigii trees. They are particularly popular in southern parts of India and, contrary to bay leaves, they are cooked fresh and are actually eaten. They are usually fried at the beginning together with onions and sometimes also used as a topping (in the above dish they appear in both). Thanks to their wonderful unique aroma, they change the flavours of the final dish and make it very special. After dozens of meals in Indian restaurants in several European countries I had never had the occasion to taste them (no comment, but you can imagine my angry face) until I started to cook from Rick Stein’s India. I fell in love as soon as I took the first bunch of leaves from the shop: their pungent smell was so amazing, so complex, I couldn’t stop myself from sniffing my shopping bag throughout the whole trip back home….
Since curry leaves are now very difficult to get in fresh form in Switzerland, whenever I have an opportunity to buy them, I vacuum pack small portions and freeze them because dried form loses much of its aroma (not to mention the texture which makes leaves too thick to eat). (If you don’t have a vacuum packing machine, before freezing, wrap the leaves in plastic film as tightly as you can). If you want to taste fresh curry leaves and don’t find them in your local Indian shop, you can easily order them on internet (they are not only grown in Asia, but also in the US!). Write to me if you need precise information about internet sources I’ve found. In short, do whatever you can to get fresh leaves. At worst you can use dried ones, but they are not even half as good…
I don’t have access to good quality fresh coconut or frozen fresh coconut, so, as I often do, I have used here coconut milk instead (my experiments with dried coconut in curries have always been a failure, so I stopped trying). I have cut down on frying oil and had to modify also the cooking process and adapt it to a lower amount of fat. Apart from that, I have slightly tweaked ingredients’ amounts, used chicken breast instead of whole chicken, shallots instead of onions, and so on… so check The Essential Andhra Cookbook for the original recipe.
TIPS: If you like this curry as much as I do, I advise preparing a big batch of masala and either keeping it in the fridge (it will keep for five days) or even freezing it in small portions. Then you stir fry onions and curry leaves, take a protein source (meat, seafood or paneer, and why not tofu?) or a vegetable to the masala, add some water and the quick delicious meal is ready in no time at all!
Preparation: about 30 minutes
Ingredients (serves four):
3 medium chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons coconut fat (or any oil of your choice)
5 big European shallots, finely sliced
15 curry leaves (fresh or frozen)
150 ml coconut milk
4 long fresh red chilli peppers (choose the variety according to your heat resistance), sliced
1 1/2 tablespoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon crushed garlic (about 3 medium garlic cloves)
4 black peppercorns
2 teaspoons turmeric powder
4 shallots, sliced
1 teaspoon salt
First prepare the masala. Roast the whole spices in a pan (make sure they don’t burn and take the pan off the heat as soon as they start to yield a strong but pleasant smell).
Grind the spices in a coffee grinder, spice grinder or in a mortar.
Mix well with the remaining ingredients in a food processor until you obtain a thick sauce.
Heat the oil in a shallow pan and stir-fry approx. 2/3 of the shallots with half of the curry leaves.
When the shallots start becoming soft, add the chicken pieces, salt them and stir-fry until slightly browned.
Add the masala, about 200 ml water and let the dish simmer until the chicken is cooked.
In the meantime, heat 1 teaspoon coconut oil in a small pan.
Stir-fry the remaining shallots and curry leaves until the onions are slightly browned.
Serve this curry with fried shallots and curry leaves on top. It’s excellent with naan.