On my last trip to India I found myself in the kitchen of my hosts, Nitya and Malvika, New Delhi townhouse chattering away with Nitya about the quality chicken in the US versus India, his love for coffee and all whiskeys and the importance of grinding your own spices. All the while we are peeling garlic, slicing onions and ginger and mashing freshly-toasted spices in a pretty fabulous mortar and pestle. Nitya mentioned that he is particularly interested in meeting and tracking men who cook, maybe not such a foreign concept in the west but chefs of the male persuasion are certainly a rarity in India. He talked about having a platform to explore this topic as well as to develop recipes he’s been thinking about for years, which is how we developed this guest series, Men Who Cook. So check back here in the coming weeks and months for posts from guest authors like Nitya who love to cook and want to share their dishes with you. Enjoy!
Men Who Cook
Nitya’s Hybrid Chicken
We were in the middle of a dinner-for-neighbours. As is usual with our dinners, we served up a mix of ethnic Indian and pidgin western food – a tossed salad, curries, daal and vegetables. This was preceded by single malt, rum, vodka, wine or beer as the case may be.
One of the men decided he likes his single malt with LOTS of ice – I mean LOTS. There is a little of the yellow stuff in a glass full of ice. SM aficionados say you should dilute good SM with a dash of water, cool if you want but NO ice. Anyway, at least it was ice. I have seen others smother a 15-year-old SM with coke. Ouch. Have a cheap Indian spirit, I told him, if you want to smother anything, but not a 15-year-old. That SM was mild and didn’t fight back but I felt like smothering him, as the owner of the said SM. The others did justice to the SM (12-year-old Glenfiddich, in this case) and drank it with a dash of water. Mmmm.
The wives sat on one side of the drawing-room while the men were at the other end. The inevitable, slow separation of the sexes. I was on the cusp but spoke to the man on my right, a professor with great culinary skills that I have sampled. The men, please note, were talking about food while the women were talking about the recently passed festival of Diwali, gifts and clothes. Surely more interesting than food??? Not really.
I brought up my hot cookery show, though I don’t think I’ll ever make it beyond the TV screen. MasterChef Australia. It’s a delight to see the contestants hustle up, that is right, hustle up, something amazing in terms of looks, in an hour flat from scratch. I cannot vouch for taste since technology hasn’t evolved to the point of transmitting this sense yet, but the stuff sure looks tasty. Then there is vicarious pleasure in hearing the judges take apart the dish morsel by morsel, give praise where its due and pull up the bad bits. What I’d like is to be able to see a dish through from start to finish, that doesn’t happen since the editor cuts from contestant to contestant. Still, it is inspirational.
In Nitya’s kitchen…
Anyway, coming back to the dinner party at hand, I decided to make chicken. Actually, the legs. I over-estimated people’s appetites by a large margin so we ended up with a ton of left-overs. I got three kilos, but will give the recipe for one kilo of Chicken Leg Hybrid Curry.
Broilers are about the blandest meat you can get. They take the taste of anything you can throw at them. The problem arises with frozen chicken – they have a sort of defrosted chicken taste that never goes, no matter what you try to smother it with. Fresh chicken is so much better, and offers a nice plain base to build on. No nasty flavours to cancel out with spices before your cooking even starts. But these were frozen legs, so needed some pre-processing.
It’s fairly simple pre-processing to kill the frozen chicken taste – take a head of garlic and make a paste of this with green chillies. Now, this garlic has to be garlicky, not flat. That means it should stick to your fingers when you peel them and the individual cloves bleed, and if you lick the juice, it should sting your tongue hard enough to make you cry. That is mean garlic. The sort you need to flavour chicken, or anything else for that matter. Size does not matter here, you can get large or small cloves but make sure of the pungency. The green chillies should be similarly powerful. You may need to get a grindstone [mortar and pestle] to make a proper paste since food processors chop finely rather than paste. Any which way, get a paste the consistency of toothpaste. Add salt to the paste.
Make cuts on the legs, 3-4 on each side, not deep enough to hit the bone but substantially deep. Rub the paste into the cuts and let the chicken stand for a couple of hours. Heat your oven to medium (150 C / 300 F) and roast the legs for 25 minutes or till nearly done – the meat should sort of be soft, but not come off in your hands.
While the chicken is standing, you can be busy with the curry part. There are two ways to do this. The hard part first – take 4-5 tomatoes and make a puree out of them. Chop 2 large onions or 3 medium ones. Onion chopping without tears is an art – skin them and remove the top and bottom. Rinse them while rubbing the exposed inners with your fingers and the outer layers of the onions. Then cut them in half and slice them on the longer side so you get semi-rounds. The slices must be thin. Do it this way and you will not have to cry over chopping onions. Take about an inch of a stick of ginger, chop it into toothpick size sticks. The best way to do this is to make thin slices first and then lay them flat and cut them into sticks, but I am sure you already figured that out. Another bit – you need a tea-spoon of powdered roasted cumin seeds and two of coriander seeds, and star anise – about two stars.
Fry the onions. I just love the smell of frying onions in hot oil. Be generous with the oil, but not overly so. There should be enough to keep the onions from burning, but not swimming. When they look transparent, add the ginger, cumin and coriander powders. Fry them till the onions are browned, but nowhere near burnt brown. Sort of brown on the edges and clear in the middle.
Put in the chicken and the tomato puree. Check the salt – this is important, do not assume the salt rubbed into the chicken will do. Add the star anise and enough water to cover the chicken legs. Bring the whole thing to a boil. Don’t powder the star anise or you’ll make the curry bitter. Boil this for about 10 minutes and shake, don’t stir, else you’ll end up with chicken legs sans meat. The curry should have the consistency of body lotion when you finish – add water if you need to get it thin enough. Add a couple of table spoons of Worcester sauce for the extra tang. You can taste as you go along so the effects of different flavours become apparent.
What I love about this is the contrast of tastes – the tomatoes of the gravy and the pungent chilly of the chicken meat. The onions add a bit of sweetness to the gravy that can be otherwise somewhat sweet-sour. The food goes well with whisky or beer, especially single malt without the ice.