One morning, several years ago, I was pouring through my collection of Indian cookery books looking for something different to do with a chicken breast languishing in my fridge. As often happens on these occasions, after ten minutes or so of not finding quite what I was looking for, I was about to revert to my trusty old Madhur Jaffrey butter chicken when a piece of paper being used as a bookmark caught my attention. Frayed and food-stained, it turned out to contain a barely legible biro-scrawled recipe for a chicken curry. After further examination, I noted that it contained some unusual culinary bedfellows for an Indian chicken dish – things like olive oil, ground caraway seed, lime juice, and most particularly, both bay and curry leaves. Then suddenly I remembered a swelteringly hot and sticky afternoon spent in a hotel kitchen in southern India in the autumn of 2003.
We were guests at the aptly named Ideal Beach Resort, in Mahabalipuram, on India’s Tamil coast, resting up for a few days before travelling inland to Coimbatore (where my wife Dido was to help in the establishment of a clinical education centre for children with autism).
I think it was on our first evening there, during supper, we got chatting with a very affable American couple at the next table who turned out to share our enthusiasm for the delicious local cuisine. At some point during the meal the four of us were invited by the maître d to visit the kitchen the following lunchtime to watch our food being prepared. Cathy – the lady of the American couple and a veteran of the Ideal Beach Hotel – chose the menu, including the lime chicken curry which turned out to be as delicious as it was unusual.
The rare blend of ingredients and spices was explained by the fact that our young head chef, although a Tamil, had been trained in Bengal and enjoyed fusing the two distinct culinary traditions.
Fortunately Dido had the presence of mind to record the preparation of the curry and – albeit thirteen years late – I was able to decipher the recipe and apply it to the chicken breast in my fridge. And, it was absolutely delicious! The caraway, lime, bay and curry leaf are a group marriage made in heaven – a complex and unctuous harmony of savoury, fragrant bitter sweetness that transforms humble white chicken meat into a thing of olfactory delight.
There are two ways to sample this fabulous curry – either follow the recipe below, or better still, go and visit the Ideal Beach Hotel. I can recommend both.
(Chapatis and a hot lime pickle are excellent with this curry also, if using fresh curry leaves, add at the same time as the lime juice.)
RECIPE(serves 2): INGREDIENTS ¼ cup: olive or coconut oil 200gm / 8oz: diced chicken breast SPICE MASALA I 5cm / 2” stick: cinnamon 2 – 3: cloves 2 - 3: cardamom pods 1: bay leaf 1: small brown onion – finely grated 5cm / 2” piece: ginger – peeled and coarsely chopped 6 cloves: garlic – peeled and coarsely chopped 2 tbsp: water 1: large, ripe tomato chopped SPICE MASALA II ½ tsp: turmeric 1 tsp: chili powder 1½ tsp: ground coriander seed 1 tsp: garam masala 1 tsp: ground caraway seed 1 tsp: whole fennel seed 1 tsp: salt 3: curry leaves ½ ltr / 1 pint: water To taste: salt To taste: lime juice METHOD: 1. Blend the ginger, garlic and water into a paste 2. Heat the oil in a kadai or a heavy skillet on a medium high heat 3. Brown the diced chicken thoroughly, then remove from kadai and put aside (retaining the juices) 4. Add masala I to the kadai and sweat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly until well browned 5. Add onion to kadai and stir-fry until browned 6. Add the tomato to the kadai and fry for 2 minutes until oil separates from the masala, onion and tomato paste 7. Add the ginger and garlic puree to the kadai and stir for 1 minute 8. Return the chicken and its juices to the kadai and stir well 9. Add masala II and the curry leaves to the kadai and stir well, making certain the chicken is well coated 10. Add the water, making sure to deglaze (scrape) the bottom of the kadai 11. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for half hour 12. Remove cover, add more salt (if necessary) and lime juice to taste, stir well and remove from heat 13. Remove cinnamon, cloves and cardamom pods before serving