“Necessity is the mother of all, if not most, inventions.” -Someone
Nope. By no means did I invent this dish. The people of Chettinad from South India did. This necessity was more like desperation.On a said Sunday, at noon, we felt the need for a very South Indian fix. Not the so-called British Indian Tikka Masala kind but the proper South Indian curry kind. Fellow South Indians would know what exactly I’m talking about. But there was no South Indian restaurant that we knew of in Auckland. The horror, the horror!
See, South Indian food generally tends to be spicier than North Indian food, especially meat laden curries. After all, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and turmeric originate from South India and as such, it’s no surprise that they are used in almost every South Indian dish. And so you see, it wasn’t enough to have Chicken Tikka Masala with roti. I needed my spicy curries and so the only way I could get some was to make some. No shortcuts. I just had to get on with it and make some Pepper Chicken Masala to save myself from further desperation and depression.
Pepper Chicken Masala comes from Chettinad. It literally translates as land of the Chettiars and is a hot and arid region in Tamil Nadu(the southern most state in India) . Its lack of arable land resulted in the incorporation of more meat into their cuisine and it is also spicier than other South Indian cuisines. Over the last century, many Chettiars became wealthy moneylenders overseas and so many Chettiars owned palatial homes with the money remitted back from overseas businesses. This wealth and extravagance also meant more sophisticated and complex meals. Every Chettinad recipe I’ve read has a long list of ingredients and a gazillion steps but the result is extremely delectable. Chettinad meat curries are the best I’ve ever had. Though they call for many spices to be added, the final dish is perfectly balanced and no one spice dominates your palate. It is just a sensational bomb in your mouth that is unforgettable. You’ve got to try it to believe it.
Pepper Chicken Masala is served in almost every South Indian restaurant in Singapore, each having its unique spin on it. This is my version. Use the best quality, bone-in chicken for this curry. Though it’s named Pepper Chicken, this version is not very peppery. I’ve tasted some versions where it’s very peppery tasting and I had a coughing fit after tasting it. If you like a peppery kick, add some coarsely ground pepper at the end. Also, the tougher bones on a free-range chicken are perfect for this curry as it adds more flavour. I’ve tried it with plump roasting chicken and it isn’t the same. This curry requires a bit of patience as the gravy takes a while to thicken. But don’t rush it. All the ground spices come together slowly and create a very harmonious thick gravy that will cling on to the chicken. It is really quite magical as at the start of cooking you’d never think that the gravy would become darker, richer, thicker and more aromatic but it does. So, your patience will be rewarded. Just look at the picture above. And as any good curry, it gets even better the next day. So, this is a perfect main dish to make ahead for a dinner party. Just reheat over a low flame and sprinkle a little water if the gravy is a little dry.
Pepper Chicken Masala
- 4-5 tbsp vegetable oil
- 3 dried indian bay leaves
- 5 green cardamom pods
- 1 cinnamon stick, 2.5cm/1 inch long
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 4 cloves
- 1/2 inch stone flower moss (kalpassi)
- 1 tsp urud dal/ bengal gram, rinsed and dried
- 3 sprigs of curry leaves, rinsed and dried
- 2 red onions, finely sliced
- 1 large tomato, blended till smooth
- 1 kg/ 2.25 lb free-range, bone-in skinless chicken, cut into medium-large pieces
- 1/4 cup water
- a few tsp of sea salt
For the spice paste / masala
- 1 tbsp cumin seeds
- 8-10 dried long, red chillies
- 3 tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tsp white poppy seeds*
- 1 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
- 5 medium garlic cloves
- 1 piece fresh ginger, 2.5 cm/ 1 inch
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
- In a large bowl, marinate chicken pieces with a pinch of ground turmeric and salt. Set aside.
- To make the spice paste,dry roast all the spices in a heavy-based pan over low heat, except the ginger,garlic and turmeric, until they turn a tad shade darker.
- Cool the toasted spices on a plate immediately. Once cooled, transfer to a spice grinder and grind till finely ground.
- Add about 1 tbsp of oil , 1-2 tbsp water, salt and the ginger, garlic and turmeric. Process to make a finely ground paste.
- In a large pot/dutch oven, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add bay leaves, cardamom pods, cinnamon, fennel seeds, cloves, stone flower moss and urud dal. Fry for 1 minute until the urud dal becomes light brown and cardamom pods swell.
- Add the curry leaves. The oil will splutter a little.
- Add the onions and fry until onions turn medium to dark brown, about 15 minutes. The caramelisation of onion is important for flavour and colour in many Indian dishes.
- Now, add the spice paste and continue to stir-fry for about 10-15 minutes. Keep stirring to prevent the paste from burning and sticking to the pot. Sprinkle a little water if paste starts to burn. The spice paste should turn a shade or two darker and it will start to smell aromatic.
- Add blended tomato and 1 tsp salt. Stir-fry for about 2-3 minutes until there is oil separation.
- Add the chicken pieces to the pot with the spice mixture and coat with masala. Cook on till chicken meat turns opaque and the meat juices start releasing. Add in water.
- Reduce heat to low and simmer the curry till the chicken pieces are completely cooked, about 20-30 minutes.
- Remove smaller and boneless chicken pieces once they are fully cooked. The thigh and drumstick pieces can be left in the pot.
- Increase heat to medium-high to thicken the sauce to your desired consistency. Add all chicken pieces back into pot.
- Check for seasoning and add more salt if needed.
- Serve with plain rice.
1. You can omit poppy seeds if you’re unable to get them but they do add more texture and taste to the gravy.