I have a cookbook problem. No, I don't have too many (well, maybe that too). While the bookstores are glutted with cookbooks, and a new crop inundates us every season, I cannot find the one definitive cookbook I crave — a South Indian cookbook to guide me through learning how to cook recipes from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Goa. I crave South Indian food like nothing else, and today's recipe is another effort to reproduce the lighter, fresher, coconut-driven curries I love.
I have tried many cookbooks, looking for the one to guide me to authentic and delicious South Indian cuisine. I've found a recipe here and there, but cookbooks tend to fall into two camps. The first is cookbooks that are published in the United States, with recipes and ingredients simplified for an American audience. Sometimes these are all right, but more frequently they give results that don't taste as full or authentic.
The second camp is that of cookbooks straight from India; I have a friend who regularly brings me new books to try. These tend to be more authentic, but I struggle to translate some of the ingredients, and to interpret instructions, which often assume a lot and take a certain level of familiarity with Indian cooking for granted.
But it's worth the hunt — because South Indian food, for me, is the gold standard in taste and bright, astonishingly interesting flavors.
Speaking very simplistically, South Indian food tends to be lighter, with drier and less rich gravies than the creamier curries of the north. The curries often rely quite a bit on toasted and ground coconut in the "masala" (the spice paste that is prepped before the curry itself is made). There is more use of tamarind, the intensely tangy fruit, and of curry leaves. Curry leaves add a fragrant, slightly spicy flavor to dishes like this, and for me they are one of the key notes of authenticity in South Indian cooking.
This curry, honestly, should have curry leaves, but I left them out because they are a rare ingredient for many people. They can be found fresh at most Indian groceries, and I love to use them when I get my hands on them. If you pick some up, throw in 20 or so during the simmering/pressure cooking phase.
Using the pressure cooker for this recipe helps all these flavors meld and permeate the chicken even better than they would after a long slow simmer. And it's ready fast — even considering the time it takes to prepare the masala, with its range of spices.
This recipe, like many others I make these days, comes not from a cookbook, but from a blog. I adapted it for my taste, and for the pressure cooker, from a Keralan cook's blog: Induget's Cooking.
I'm always on the hunt for recipes like this — flavorful and delicious curries from the South of India. Do you have others you can recommend? Or a cookbook that really gets it right?
Kerala Coconut Chicken Curry
For the coconut spice paste:
4 small dried red chilies
6 large shallots, peeled and halved
3/4 cup grated unsweetened coconut
4 whole cloves
1 inch cinnamon stick
3 green cardamom pods
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon brown or black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
For the chicken curry:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or coconut oil
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 large yellow onions, sliced
2 large tomatoes, sliced
2 1/2 to 3 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
3 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon vinegar
Cooked basmati rice
For the coconut spice paste: If using an electric pressure cooker, heat it to its brown or sauté setting (whichever is hotter). If using a stovetop pressure cooker, place the uncovered pot over medium heat. Roast the red chilies and shallots together until all have developed black spots. Remove and set aside in the bowl of a small food processor.
Add the coconut and whole spices to the hot pressure cooker pan and cook for about 1 minute, stirring constantly until fragrant and toasted and the coconut has turned light brown. Add the turmeric and stir for another few seconds, then transfer coconut and spices to the food processor bowl.
Blend until fairly smooth, adding a 4 to 6 tablespoons of water to create a creamy paste. Set aside.
Shortcut Option: If you do not have the whole spices, or don't want to take the time to pull them together, you may substitute 3 tablespoons garam masala spice powder. Add to the coconut after the coconut is toasted, stir for another 15 seconds, then proceed with the recipe.
For the chicken curry: Add oil to the hot pressure cooker pot. When hot, add chopped ginger, garlic, and sliced onions. Sauté for 10 to 15 minutes, or until onions are softened and browned around the edges. Add the coconut spice paste and fry for 1 minute. Add the sliced tomatoes and fry for 5 more minutes or until tomatoes have broken down. Stir in the chicken, salt, and vinegar. Mix well.
Cover the pressure cooker and lock the lid. Bring up to pressure. Cook on HIGH pressure for 10 minutes, then let the pressure release naturally (this will take another 8 to 15 minutes).
The chicken should be thoroughly cooked, but if it is not, or if it is not as tender as you would like it to be, pressure cook for another 4 minutes, using the quick pressure release to immediately let out the steam after the cook time.
Serve with basmati rice and yogurt.
Tool Tip: I am using an electric pressure cooker so all of this is automatic; I tell the pressure cooker to cook it on HIGH pressure (15 psi) for 10 minutes, with a natural pressure release, so I set it and walk away. The pressure cooker brings itself up to full heat and pressure, cooks for 10 minutes after that, then slowly releases the pressure. I can tell that the pressure is fully released when the safety lock on the lid turns off, and the valve float drops down.
If you are using a stovetop pressure cooker then follow the instructions and method for bringing the pressure cooker up pressure and cook as directed above.
Stovetop Directions (no Pressure Cooker): If you want to make this without a pressure cooker, simply follow the instructions above, toasting the spices and coconut in a skillet or Dutch oven instead of in a pressure cooker. Cook the onions and garlic in a Dutch oven or deep pot with a lid. After adding the chicken, cover and cook on low heat for 30 to 45 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and tender.
(Images: Faith Durand)