One of the great things about living in Toronto is that not only are there restaurants with food from around the world, those restaurants have to get their ingredients from somewhere and so a home cook can find nearly anything they want to cook with. And so one of my favourite things to do is to try a meal at a restaurant and if we like it, I try to make it at home. This gives me a number of adventures – from shopping for ingredients to researching online for a good recipe and/or YouTube link to watch, to cooking and eating the food.
Indian cooking, though, has not always been easy for me. My first attempts in the early 90’s were embarrassing to say the least. I still remember going to an Indian grocery in Bethlehem, PA (in those days it wasn’t just an Indian grocery, it was the Indian grocery) back in the days when I was starting to learn a few Hindi words for ingredients. picking up a packet of Channa Masala powder and bringing it to the counter along with my other things. There were no instructions on the package so I just asked the person at the counter how to use it. They just laughed at me. I see now it wouldn’t be too different from walking in to a grocery store, picking up a packet of Italian seasoning intending to make a marinara and asking how to use the seasoning packet. For those who are curious, you can find a pretty decent Channa Masala recipe here.
Not long after that, I did find a recipe for it. I brought some to a potluck at work one day and my coworkers tried it. I got some gentle feedback from some of my colleagues from India: “It needs a little less tomato.” Looking back, it was extremely gentle feedback. The gravy was closer to the marinara sauce I talked about above. What can I say? My family is mostly Italian.
In the couple of decades since then I’ve had some opportunities to improve. Some has been through trial and error but I also had a couple of really helpful classes. I learned how much tomato I really needed (not as much as you might imagine!), and how long to cook my onions (a whole lot longer than I was!). And then the Internet started to blossom with recipes and eventually videos.
Some time ago I heard about food from the Chettinad region of South India in the Tamil Nadu state. There’s tons of North Indian food in downtown Toronto, and a little South Indian food – you don’t have to look so far to find a dosa, for example. But a few years ago I hadn’t heard of Chettinad food. We made the trek out to Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, to Anjappar Chettinad. The food was deliciously spiced and not only that, we could get filter coffee – one of my favourite things.
Remembering those delicious, peppery flavours, I decided it was time to add a new dish to our menu and I searched for a recipe for Chettinad Chicken.
But first I’d have to get a few things at the store. I’m lucky in that just a ten minute walk from home is Iqbal Foods, the largest Asian grocery store in Ontario. If there’s an ingredient you need for a dish – nearly any dish – you will find it there. You can find nearly any spice, any snack or sweet, pre-made dosa or utthapam batter, ready made meals of every sort. I actually had all of the spices I needed but I did need a few things like onions and fresh coconut. We were also out of pickles and roti (Sorry, I don’t make my own – I keep trying and they are as embarrassing as my first chickpea curries).
My experience at the checkout was a little different from that time 20-some years ago. This time, hearing someone speak to the man bagging my groceries in Urdu my rule for language practice kicked in. Now if I spoke to him, I would have to also speak Urdu. And so, seeing him bagging most of my things in plastic bags that I didn’t need (Like most folks in the neighbourhood, I have a cart of my own to bring things home), I said to him “Mujhe aur bag nahin chahiye.” (I don’t need any more bags). He gave me a bemused look and confirmed that I didn’t need any more bags.
I headed home but not without a stop at the samosa and sweet shop. Tonight’s dinner would take a while to make and my family needed snacks while they waited. And so I picked up a bunch of samosas and chutney for us to snack on while I prepared dinner.
In to the kitchen I went, first cracking open and grating the coconut. This took a bit of searching on the Internet as I’d never done it before. It turned out to not be that difficult and the quality of coconut was so much better than the desiccated coconut I usually buy.
Then it was time to roast all the spices in a pan.
Then it was time to grind them in to a powder. There would be no pre-packaged masalas in our house tonight.
And then into the food processor went the masala along with lots of ginger, garlic, and the coconut I had grated earlier.
I heated some clarified butter (ghee) and tossed in some black mustard seeds and bay leaves and soon after added lots of onion and green chilli. Once the onions were cooked enough (I learned that lesson) and were starting to turn a little brown, in went the chicken, the masala paste I had just made, some tomatoes (not too much!) and a little turmeric. This would cook for about 45 minutes. Once that was done, I put a little more ghee in a small frying pan and crisped up some curry leaves to put on top of it all. The end result looked like this:
I’m really pleased with how this came out. It ended up being one of the tastiest dishes I have ever made from any cuisine. The effort spent to roast and grind my own spices and to use fresh ingredients had paid off. This will definitely be on the list for dishes we make more often.
Now it’s your turn. If you want to give it a try, you can find the recipe here. Though some of you might find some of the ingredients a little unfamiliar, the recipe itself isn’t that difficult. Just read it over so your prep is all done and take it one step at a time. That said, I actually made this once before and have a few tips:
- This is definitely non-vegetarian. However, last time I didn’t have enough chicken and added tofu and the tofu tasted pretty good. So I suspect adding tofu or better yet, paneer, would be an excellent way to make this vegetarian friendly.
- The recipe suggests grinding everything together in a food processor. The first time I tried that with the spices as well. This didn’t work so well and had noticeable spice pieces in there. Grind them in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle first and add them to the fresh ingredients for the masala paste and the texture will come out much better.
- The recipe includes curry leaves but never says what to do with them. In some recipes I have seen them used along with the mustard seeds at the beginning but as these were in the ingredient list near the end I don’t that was where they were intended to go. Thus I did what I’ve seen in other recipes – crisp them in a bit of oil or ghee and add them over the top at the end.