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Adventures in food for curious cooks.

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Week 2 - The Curry Pot

Chicken has been simmering in the curry pots of India for thousands of years. This week, take your kitchen to India and bring an ancient dish home.

As you may recall from the first post in this series, we don't know when or where, exactly, the first domesticated chicken arrived on the scene, but scientists tell us it was roughly 5,000 years ago, somewhere within the tropical swath of Asia that stretches from the Philippines to India. So last week we began the beginning in the Philippines, and this week we end the beginning in India.

Chicken: Sacred, Ancient, Delicious

Although chickens were present in India millenia ago, it is not clear whether they were eaten or revered, or both, and when. There is evidence that cockfighting was practiced in India a few thousand years ago (as it is in places today), and some traditions include cockfighting with religious rituals. Strict Hindus do not eat meat, and it appears that at one time the chicken may have been considered especially sacred in parts of India, as the cow is today.

But in other places, chicken would surely have been simmering along with the richly spiced sauces we now call curry. The archeological record is a bit fuzzy when it comes to chicken (due to the vagaries of bone size and weight, combined with the physics of shifting sediment layers and the intricacies of genetics), but the molecular signatures of ginger and turmeric have been found in cooking pots and human teeth from the Indus era 4,500 years ago.

These days, chicken is a common choice among non-vegetarian Hindus across India.

Kerala and the Spice Trade

Calicut 1572 by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenbergs, Published in Atlas Civitates Orbis Terrarum, 1572.  This picture shows how the Malabar coast looked to Europeans during the "Age of Discovery." Notice all the coconut trees!

This week we have recipes for two chicken curries. Mughlai Indian Chicken Curry is a north Indian type of curry, while Kerala Chicken Curry is from the state of Kerala in the south of India along the Malabar coast.

Kerala has been an important stop for spice traders and explorers for thousands of years, and all of these diverse visitors left their mark on the culture and cuisine of the area. Unlike other parts of India, Christians and Muslims make up nearly 50% of the population in Kerala. And Kerala Chicken Curry (called Nadan Kozhi by the locals), with its characteristic coconuts and curry leaves, is the standard choice for Sunday supper.

Indian Ingredients

Chicken Cut Through the Bone - You'll notice that our two chicken curry recipes call for bone-in chicken, skin removed, cut through the bone. For most Americans, this is very unusual. Chicken is either bone-in, skin-on (think fried chicken), or boneless and skinless (think grilled chicken breast, chicken cutlets or chicken soup). And if an American recipe calls for cutting the chicken into pieces, it usually goes without saying that the meat will be off the bone first.

This is not the case in many cultures, including India. Including cut-up bones in a dish lends a greater depth of flavor. There is marrow and gelatin inside the bones, which gives structure and flavor to a sauce. This is why we chop bones into pieces before using them to make stock: we want to release that flavor powerhouse from inside the bones.

If you prefer, you can absolutely make either of these recipes with boneless-skinless pieces. Just cut the meat into appetizing chunks (for example, a boneless-skinless thigh could be cut into rough thirds). Follow the recipe as written from there, except that cooking time will be decreased. Start checking about 5-10 minutes before the recipe indicates, depending on the size of your pieces.

Patel Brothers in Parsippany, New Jersey.

If you do decide to make it with bone-in pieces, don't cut them up yourself; ask your butcher to do it for you. I initially tried cutting the pieces with my high-quality meat cleaver, but ended up smashing rather than slicing them, and had lots of tiny bone fragments to contend with. (Very unpleasant.)

Also, note that even if your butcher does the cutting, you may still end up with a few small fragments of bone (I did). Let your guests know to expect it, then embrace the authenticity of the dish when it happens.

Spice Aisles - I shopped at Patel Brothers, which is a chain of Indian markets found across the United States east of the Mississippi, as well as Dallas, Houston and Silicon Valley. They had everything I was looking for, and not only was the staff very helpful, so were the customers! If you can't find an Indian market near you, Whole Foods generally carries many of these ingredients, and of course there is always Amazon. But you should definitely feel free to use the substitutions described in the recipes. Don't for a minute think that you shouldn't make one of these, just because you can't find asafoetida. Whatever it is, either leave it out or use something similar. it will still be delicious.

Mise En Place

Mise en place. These ingredients are scootched together to fit in the picture, but before cooking, each prep dish should be lined up in order so you can add them as you go.

When you make this week's recipes, you will want to use one very simple restaurant-style cooking trick: mise en place. Pronounced "meez on plahss" this French term translates literally to "things in place." It's the culinary term for having all your ingredients prepped and at the ready, in place, before you start cooking, just as if you were starring in your own cooking show. In chef-speak, this is often called "the meez."

I must admit I am sometimes a bit lazy with this myself. I figure I can mince the garlic while the onion is browning, chop the herbs while the sauce simmers, and eyeball that teaspoon of salt when the time comes.

And frankly, this is often true when one is leisurely cooking up a familiar dish on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  But when you're trying a new recipe, especially one with lots of measured spices added at various times, or unfamiliar cooking techniques, or if there are children who may need a drink or snack or Band-Aid an any moment during cooking, your meez will save you.

Do it like this: Read the entire recipe first, from the first ingredient to the last instruction. Then, go step-by-step down the list of ingredients and measure and prep them into little (or big) dishes. As you do, refer to the instructions, so that if 5 spices are added at the same time, you measure them into the same dish so that you can sprinkle them in together. Finally, line up all your prep dishes in the order they will be used. As you cook, dump the ingredients into the cooking pot and accumulate the now-empty prep dishes together near the sink so they can quickly be rinsed or washed and gotten out of the way.

This way, as you cook, the kitchen practically cleans itself. And you don't forget the salt. It's a great trick.

Historical and archeological information in this post is based on Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler.


Mughlai Indian Chicken Curry

Delicious, authentic chicken curry from the north of India.

Kerala Chicken Curry (Nadan Kozhi Curry)

Authentic Sunday supper in the province of Kerala.

South Indian Vegetable Curry

Made with coconut, curry leaves and a single hot chile. Use carrots and cabbage in place of some of the green beans, for a dish with the colors of the Indian flag.

Jeera Fried Rice

Basmati rice, infused with the scent of cumin seeds, adorned with green peas. A classic Indian approach to rice.

Next Week:  China