A few weeks ago, I found myself on the phone, frantically shuttling between calls to my aunt and my grandmother, trying to jolt their memories and nail down the ingredients we needed for my Singapore family’s take on chicken curry.
As the calls got more confusing and the ingredient list grew more nebulous, my friend Basil, a Singaporean of Indian ethnicity, sat nearby, listening in with an increasingly incredulous look.
“You’re sitting next to an Indian,” he finally said, “and you’re not asking him how he makes his curry?”
A very good point.
It turns out Basil, better known to his friends as the hard-to-miss, gregarious guy at any bar that he frequents, also knows how to cook. He learned 20 years ago in his grandmother’s kitchen, when he was drafted as a teenager to help her after she’d lost a leg to diabetes. “She would park her wheelchair at the entrance to the kitchen and bark out instructions to me,” he said.
Well, her lessons must have stuck because Basil then proved that he could rattle off her curry instructions as quickly and surely as he can list the latest Manchester United stats.
The moment I got back to my Brooklyn kitchen, I knew I had to try it.
The recipe begins as many other curry recipes do — with loads of garlic, ginger and shallots.
Basil’s flexible on how finely to chop up the garlic, ginger and shallots, but I prefer my curry gravy less chunky. So I used a food processor to turn the ingredients into a paste-like consistency.
After all that prep work is done, the curry is a cinch to make. It basically involves heating up oil, frying up mustard seeds until they pop, and adding some of the garlic, ginger and shallots. Then, to use Basil’s words, “you just dump everything in” and cook for 45 minutes.
Now, the curry that my family makes — and the curry you tend to see in American restaurants — is rather liquid.
So I started to panic when I filled up my wok with the ingredients and noticed how dry it looked. The spice paste was barely coating the chicken, much less filling the pan with gravy. Would this burn? I had no idea.
I’ll admit — I ran to my pantry at this point to grab a can of coconut milk, briefly considering adding that to the mix, even though Basil had expressly said, “No coconut milk.”
In the end, the desire to preserve our friendship led me to follow his instructions to the letter.
The final result, however, was delicious.
The melange of spices is complex — and without the sweetness of the
coconut milk, the taste of this chicken has a deep and slightly smoky
quality to it.
It’s a taste that will linger and intensify over days. (You might want to make this a day ahead.)
Having found a recipe that’s a keeper, I’m of course greedy for more. Also on Basil’s grandmother’s lesson plan was a recipe for spicy Goan pork curry that he says is to die for.
If we’re all lucky, maybe he’ll share it.
Basil’s Grandmother’s Chicken Curry
1 whole chicken, cut up into parts
3 TB chili powder
1 tsp fennel seeds
1.5 TB ground coriander
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp cumin
1 or 2 whole star anise (optional)
10 dried chili peppers
3 inches of ginger, peeled
20 cloves of garlic
1.5 heaping TB mustard seeds
2 stalks of curry leaves
2 TB corn or vegetable oil
Salt, to taste
Chop up the garlic, shallots and ginger. (You can use a food processor if you’d like a less chunky gravy.) Set a small portion of this mixture aside. Then mix up the rest with the chili powder, fennel seeds, coriander, turmeric, cumin and set that aside for 15 minutes.
Heat 2 TB of oil in a wok over medium to high heat until the oil is very hot. Add the mustard seeds and fry until the mustard seeds start to pop and split open. Add the small portion of garlic, ginger and shallots that you’d set aside and fry that a little, until fragrant, then add in the rest of the ingredients (the spice mixture, chicken, star anise, dried chili peppers, salt and curry leaves).
Cook for 45 minutes over medium heat, or until chicken is cooked through, stirring occasionally. If you’d like a gravy, cover the wok while cooking. If you’d prefer a dry curry, don’t cover it.
Serve with rice.