Sometimes you have to know the bad to achieve the good. To wit, a variety of dictators and inky newsprint, and for our purpose, lousy curries.
You easily can grab the wrong Indian takeout menu and end up with a quart of protein morsels floating in greasy sauce reminiscent of the hot line at a Korean deli. The line between good and bad Indian food is hardly razor thin: the place near us in Tribeca is great; the one a few blocks down is terrible. It’s a pattern as reliable as the cycles of the orbs..
From my experience, the finest Indian food is that produced inside an Indian household. However, I’m a great believer that Indian food is well-suited to any home.
The critical step one is a pantry; raid a good Indian grocery and overpurchase: bags of cardamom, cloves, dals, jasmine rice, cinnamon sticks, fenugreek, asoefatida, garam masala, coriander, cumin, curry, mustard oil, mustard seeds, unsweetened coconut, curry leaves, fresh and dried chilies, ghee, jaggery, tamarind extract or blocks, and any powders you may or may never need. It becomes an addiction, but you can hooked on far worse. Unless you start going on regular Kingfisher and betel leaf binges.
Once you possess the tools, you can cook anything. Because these mostly quick preparations make for easy weekday meals, you’ll gain a pretty deft hand in no time, your fingers acquainting themselves to the feel of a pinch of this and a pinch of that, your ears attuning to the pop of mustard seeds, your instincts developing a comfortable sense of timing and how to work with your newly minted pantry.
In the manner of Indian home cooks, we like to keep the curries simple, healthy chunks of a few vegetables or meats touched with spice and, if called for, an appropriate amount of sauce. Here we made one with chicken and potatoes, but as with a good movie script, the star of the show isn’t the chicken or the veg, but the foundation, your stocked and fragrant pantry.
(NOTE: pay attention to the salt-it’ll need assertive seasoning. Also, don’t be fooled by the chicken, the potatoes may take a bit longer to cook. I’d rather have slightly dry chicken breast (it’s in a flavorful sauce anyhow) and tender potatoes than perfect chicken and undercooked veg.)
Lahori Chicken with Whole Spices and Potatoes (from Suvir Saran’s GREAT book Indian Home Cooking)
2 ½ pounds chicken breasts and thighs, skinless (or a large whole cut up bird), in 1-inch chunks
3 large red potatoes, peeled, quartered
¾ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 ½ medium onions rough dice
5 garlic cloves
2 inch piece ginger peeled, halved
3 tablespoons canola
1 inch piece cinnamon stick
12 green cardamom pods
10 black peppercorns
3 whole red dried chiles
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 fresh hot chile, halved
2 large tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
¼ cup plain yogurt, whisked
1 cup water
½ cup chopped cilantro
juice 1 lemon
- Combine chicken, taters, turmeric, ¼ teaspoon of cayenne, pinch of salt and marinate in a bowl.
- Puree onions, ginger, garlic in a food processor and set aside.
- Heat oil with the spices (cinnamon stick to cumin in the ingr list) in a medium pot over medium high heat. When cinnamon unfurls, 1-2 inutes, add onion mixture, chile, and a pinch of salt, cook, stirring till veggies brown, about 8-10 minutes.
- Remove cinnamon and chile (we kept in the chile for heat), stir in remaining turmeric and cayenne. Add tomatoes and tomato paste, stir 5 minutes. Puree in blender or processor until smooth.
- Heat remaining oil in the pot, add chicken and taters, cook stirring 2 minutes to thicken a bit.
- Add pureed tomato mixture, bring to a boil, stir in water, return to a boil, reduce heat and partially cover, simmer about 30 minutes until the chicken is cooked through and the taters are tender. Stir ever few minutes to prevent sauce sticking. Uncover, reduce to thicken, stir in cilantro, lemon juice and season with salt if necessary (SEE NOTE).