(Image credit: Christine Han)

This version of a shepherd's pie plays with the regional flavors of India, and in actuality, probably shouldn't be called a real shepherd's pie because it has no lamb. Perhaps an Indian chicken-wrangler pie would be a better name. Notwithstanding nomenclature and food history's neurotic exactness, this dish embodies the flavors of the subcontinent.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

In northern and eastern India, hearty curries burst with a toasted spice blend, or garam masala, while down south, coconut and cashews reign supreme. If you wish, this casserole can be made in stages — the chicken curry one day and the sweet potatoes the next, and put together to warm up your next casual get-together.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

Make sure to serve with toasty warm naan (an Indian flatbread) or crispy papadums (an Indian cracker). This casserole is incredibly popular with kids!

Deep-Dish Shepherd's Pie with Sweet Potato and Chicken Curry

Serves 8 to 10

For the sweet potatoes:
6 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled, and cut into large chunks
1/2 cup unsweetened canned coconut cream (see Recipe Notes)

1/4 cup coconut oil

For the chicken curry spice mixture:
3 large or 6 small dried bay leaves (using those broken pieces is just fine for this!)
4 whole cloves
2 to 8 dried red chilies, stems and seeds removed (depending upon heat preference)
10 whole black peppercorns
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds

For the sweet potato spice mixture:
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom, green preferred
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
6 to 8 scrapes nutmeg (see Recipe Notes)

For the chicken curry:
4 tablespoon coconut oil
2 large sweet onions, peeled and finely chopped (about 3 cups)
1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
4 cloves garlic, peeled and grated, any green centers discarded
2 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into to 2- to 2 1/2-inch pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 (14-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk (see Recipe Notes)
1/4 cup cashew butter
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 (14.5-ounce) can chopped tomatoes
1 pound frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed, or 2 pounds fresh spinach, leaves only, sautéed and squeezed (1 cup cooked, squeezed, and packed)
1 cup baby green peas, fresh or frozen and defrosted

1 small bunch fresh cilantro, leaves and stems finely chopped

Cook the sweet potatoes: Place a large pot with cold salted water on the stove. Add the potatoes. Cook over high heat for about 20 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and a knife slides through the center of the thickest potato with ease.

Prepare the spices for the chicken curry: In a large, heavy pot or enameled cast iron skillet set over high heat, combine the dried bay leaves, cloves, dried chilies, peppercorns, cumin seeds, and coriander seeds and cook, shaking the pan, for 30 to 45 seconds, being careful that the spices do not burn. Transfer to a spice grinder or coffee grinder dedicated to spices and grind until fully powdered. Transfer to a bowl labeled "for the chicken curry," and reserve the pan.

Toast the spices for the sweet potatoes: Heat the same pan and add the salt, cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, pepper, cloves, and nutmeg and cook, stirring, for 15 seconds. Transfer to a bowl labeled "for the sweet potatoes" (the two spice mixtures will look the same!). Reserve the pan.

Make the chicken curry: Return the pan to high heat, add the coconut oil, and heat until the oil is fully melted and hot. Add the onions and cook, still over high heat, stirring until they are translucent and the edges are browned. Add the ginger and garlic, stir well, and cook for 30 seconds. Add the chicken and stir to incorporate. Add the salt and stir well. Add the coconut milk and cashew butter and stir well. Add the brown sugar and tomatoes and stir. Add the spice mixture and the cinnamon and stir well. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the chicken is no longer pink and is cooked through.

Drain the sweet potatoes, and return to the pot. Add the coconut oil, coconut cream, and reserved spices and stir well. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to broil. Spray a 9x13-inch deep-dish lasagna pan or casserole dish that is at least 3 inches deep with nonstick vegetable oil spray. Add the spinach, peas, and cilantro to the chicken curry, stir well, and transfer to the prepared pan. Spoon the sweet potato mixture across the top and smooth with the back of a wet spoon or offset spatula. Broil for 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are lightly browned and crusty. Serve immediately.

Recipe Notes

  • Coconut cream is made from the flesh of coconuts. It is very fatty and rich, with a texture similar to thick whipped cream. Don't confuse it with cream of coconut, the canned, sweetened product that is used in cocktails and also in baked goods.
  • Nutmeg is available ground, but if you buy the whole nutmeg and grate or scrape it with a sharp knife yourself, the flavor and fragrance will be much stronger. Look for it in specialty spice stores, supermarket spice sections, or online.