By Prerna Singh
My brother: He is Mummy’s favorite kid. She never admits to it and always gives me that what-on-earth-are-you-talking-about look every time I say this to her, but I know. He is the gentler of us two (at least on the outside), doesn’t leave any trail of his crimes, and he ate his greens.
Me: Quite the contrary, in spite of being the quieter one.
He and crazy me together managed to keep Mummy on her toes all the time. She was either in the kitchen cooking for us, making rounds to our school with explanations for us, pulling us apart while we tried to kill each other, or in her mandir (temple) praying for us.
But Sundays were different. Sunday was the day she looked forward to all week. Sunday was when we would behave. Sunday was when I ate my greens with no whining. Sunday was when Papa was home and took over from Mummy with the kitchen, the chores, and the kids.
Our Sunday morning would start with the sound of Mummy reciting her prayers in the prayer room and the smell of chai simmering away in the copper pot my grandma gave to her. Papa would come into our room, move the curtain for the sun to glare right at our faces, pull away our blankets, plant a big fat kiss on both of our cheeks, and lift us up in his muscular arms, taking us straight to the bathroom. By the time we could snap out of our sleep, our teeth would be brushed, and we would be in our running shoes all set for our morning run . . . well . . . Papa’s morning run and our dragging-our-feet-behind-Papa run. I remember him running towards the sun with the rays falling on his face and the two of us lagging behind him, hiding in his shadow to save our sleepy eyes from the shine. We would run past the nearby mandir and some local shops, wave hello to half the town, and be back home for breakfast. The hours after breakfast were what we looked forward to even more.
Sunday was chicken curry day. We knew Papa would get us ready, load us onto his scooter with one kid standing in front and the other sitting on the back seat, tightly wrapping both arms around his waist, as we went to the Sunday haat (farmers’ market). Carrying our jholas (bags), we would stop at every vendor looking for the plumpest tomatoes and freshest greens, and bargaining for the best deal on potatoes and onions. Last stop would be the butcher shop, which was located at the end of the haat. While waiting for the butcher to get our chicken ready, we would enjoy our ice creams or savor a glass of sweet sugarcane juice. Then we would head home.
At home everything from the haat would be washed twice. We would sneak out into the backyard as Papa went into the kitchen to make his world-famous (to us) chicken curry. It took him at least two hours to make. The process would start with onion, ginger, and garlic paste prepared using a stone grinder, and whole spices ground separately until everything turned into a smooth paste. Papa’s loyal pressure cooker would be pulled out (which by the way was used only on Sundays, and just for the chicken curry). The cooking would begin, and the aroma of masala floating out to the backyard would get strong and stronger.
Two hours later we would lay newspaper on the floor, our plates on top of it, and lunch would be served. It was just chicken curry, steaming hot rotis (flatbread), and a simple salad on the side. But that is still and forever will be the best meal anyone could serve to me.
Every family in India has their own chicken curry recipe. A few spices differ here and there, but the soul is still the same. The recipe on the next page is my family’s version as I now make it. ♦
Prerna’s Chicken Curry with Roti
2½ pounds whole chicken, cleaned and cut into pieces
¼ cup lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon fresh-cracked black pepper
1½ cups chopped onion
3–4 cloves garlic
2 inches ginger root
2–3 hot green chili peppers (adjust according to how much heat you can handle)
2–3 dried bay leaves
1½ cinnamon sticks
3–4 whole black cardamom pods
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ cup mustard oil (can substitute vegetable or olive oil)
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
2½ tablespoons coriander powder
1½ cups chopped tomatoes
1½ teaspoons garam masala powder
1½ tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)
Handful of chopped cilantro
Salt to taste
Place the chicken pieces in a shallow bowl. Combine lemon juice, salt, and black pepper and pour over the chicken. Set aside for 30 minutes to marinate.
Meanwhile, grind onion, garlic, ginger, and green chili into a thick paste and set aside. Roughly pound the whole spices (bay leaves, cinnamon stick, black cardamom, cumin, and cloves) and set aside.
Heat oil in a thick-bottomed pan with slightly higher sides. (A pressure cooker or wok would be a good alternative.) Add the pounded spices to the hot oil. Stir as they sputter. Add turmeric, stir, and then add the previously prepared onion paste. Turn the heat to medium and cook while stirring occasionally until all the liquid has evaporated and the paste is dense and golden brown.
Add salt, coriander powder, and chopped tomato. Turn the heat to medium high and cook, stirring occasionally. As the tomato slowly breaks down, the concoction will turn into a slightly smooth, loose paste and the oil will begin to separate.
Add garam masala, stir in the marinated chicken, and mix everything very well. Reduce the heat to medium low, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally. The chicken will add a lot of moisture initially, but after 15–20 minutes of cooking over medium heat, the sauce will start to thicken. If using a pressure cooker, cover, lock, and wait for two whistles, then turn off heat and leave covered for another 15 minutes. I prefer slow cooking, so at this point I turn the heat to medium low, uncover, and simmer for another 20–25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is thoroughly cooked and the gravy is reduced to a thick consistency.
Once the chicken is cooked, add ghee, cilantro, and salt to taste. Stir well. Cover and let rest for 15 minutes before serving with roti (recipe opposite), other bread of choice, or rice.
Roti: An Indian Staple
Indian meals are never complete without roti or one of any number of other wonderful flatbreads. There are endless ways to make Indian flatbreads, and it mostly varies by region. For instance, soil in the southern part of India is very good for rice crops, so breads there are mostly made of rice flour. The northern part is fertile for wheat and grain cultivation, so wheat flour is what is mostly consumed in the region. A basic roti like this is made in many homes almost every day.
Start with 3 cups flour in a bowl. (I like to use all-purpose flour mixed 3:1 with whole wheat bread flour.) Add water little by little, mixing it into the flour using your other hand. My mom says that adding a little milk to the dough while kneading it makes the rotis even softer. When you feel the dough is formed, transfer it to the counter or a flat dish and knead for about 4 to 5 minutes. Cover the dough with a thin, damp kitchen towel and let it rest for about 5 to 10 minutes.
Cut the dough into small pieces and roll each into a ball. Dust the countertop or a wooden board with flour, and working on one ball at a time, roll out each ball into a flat, round shape using a rolling pin. Dust the dough balls with additional flour as needed to keep them from sticking to the rolling pin.
Heat up a skillet (or an Indian tava, if you have one). Cook roti one at a time by placing on the hot surface to cook for 15 to 20 seconds or until they puff up and you see small bubbles on the surface. Then flip to cook the second side for about 5 to 10 seconds before transferring to a cooling rack. Serve.
Prerna Singh leads the editorial, content, and community growth at an award-winning food blog, indiansimmer.com. She spent most of her childhood in a small town in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, a time she fondly remembers for rotis straight off the clay oven and mom’s cooking with produce plucked right from the farms. She went to business school in India for an MBA and worked in the advertising industry for a few years before she married the love of her life and moved to San Francisco 12 years ago. When not in her kitchen, you will find Prerna in the mountains hiking with her daughters, 9 and 4, or playing a game of badminton with her husband.