Kerala pepper chicken
An intensely aromatic, spicy chicken from the state of Kerala, in the southwest of India. Like a lot of food from Kerala, mustard seed and curry leaf are prominent. With the sweetness of the onion, the richness of the chicken, and the fresh spiciness—it’s crave worthy. We were literally stealing the last few pieces off each-others’ plates. We made this at the Normandie house, as part of a big Indian-food-and-Bollywood night, with our good friend Mythili (check out her great blog!) who’s a regular collaborative cooker in our kitchen. It was perfect with a coconutty egg roast, and some chapati, rice, and beer.
This recipe is easy to prepare, but it does require one technique that might be unfamiliar–sometimes called tempering, or spluttering. Instead of dry-toasting and grinding all the spices, you heat oil until it is very hot, almost smoking, and add the whole spices until they start popping and exploding. This is a fundamental technique of Indian cooking, and is a lot of fun (if, maybe, a bit intimidating at first.) Curry leaves should be available fresh or frozen in Indian markets (or just grow your own). Dry are available too.
For the spice mix
– 1 in (3cm) cinnamon stick
– 2 tbsp (30ml) black pepper
– 1 tbsp (15ml) cloves
– 1 tbsp (15ml) green cardamom pods
– 6-7 dry red chillies
– 1 tbsp (15ml) coriander seeds
– 1 tbsp (15ml) cumin seeds
For the chicken gravy
– 6 lbs (2.7kg) chicken (a whole, bone-in chicken, cut into pieces)
– 2 red onions
– 4 fresh green chilies (Thai or serrano)
– 1 bulb garlic
– 2in (4cm) piece of ginger
– 10 (or more, or a lot more) curry leaves
– 1 tbsp (30ml) black mustard seeds
– 2 tsp (10ml) fennel seeds
– 4-5 tbsp (60-75ml) coconut oil
– 1 pinch of garam masala/egg roast masala/duck roast masala.
– 1tbsp (30ml) salt, or to taste
Prepare the dry spice mix ahead of time. Toast the spices, adding each to the hot pan in the order they appear.
Be careful not to burn them. Then grind it all together, discarding the cardamom pod shells first, of course.
Note–we usually use ground cinnamon, because the typical Chinese cinnamon is nearly impossible to grind by hand. If using ground cinnamon don’t toast it. But if you have the more delicate Sri Lankan/Mexican cinammon, or have an electric spice grinder, toast and grind it by all means.
Make a ginger-garlic paste. Finely chop the ginger and garlic, and then mash it in a mortar and pestle.
It should make about 1/4 cup (50ml). Slice the onions, reasonably thin. Slice the chilies.
Heat the oil in a deep, thick-bottomed pan over quite high heat, until it is nearly smoking. You can test if it’s hot enough by adding a single mustard seed occasionally. It will be hot enough when the seed bubbles vigorously, and then probably pops.
Then, throw in the mustard seeds, fennel and red chilies. When they all start to pop, after about 30 seconds, throw in the curry leaves. In another 20 seconds or so, the leaves will be starting to turn transparent, and the kitchen will smell amazing. Add the dry spice mix, and stir everything together for about 30 seconds. Again, the fragrance will be spectacular.
Immediately throw in the onions, and stir to combine everything. Turn the heat down to medium. Cook the onions until they are soft, translucent, and just starting to turn golden. Add the ginger-garlic paste and the chili. Saute together, until the garlic and ginger begin to smell cooked.
Add the chicken, and coat it well in the spice-onion mixture.
Add salt, the masala, and stir to combine. Cover, and cook over medium for about 40 minutes. Only add enough water, as you cook, to ensure it doesn’t completely dry out. This is a dry, not a wet, gravy dish.
Once the chicken is cooked, and the juice from the chicken has somewhat evaporated, check seasoning. Garnish with chopped cilantro, and curry leaves.