The first e-mail made me smile. As a writer focusing on Indian food, I often receive notes from people requesting recipes. But this e-mailer wanted the recipe for chicken curry. Over the years, many similar e-mails have followed. In fact, it's the recipe that's most requested of me. And still I smile. Imagine asking a cook from the United States for the recipe for barbecue? Would that be barbecue from Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee or Kansas City, just for starters?
Just as many states, regions and sub-regions in the United States have their own version of barbecue, every state and sub-region of India has its own version of chicken curry -- which translates literally to "chicken in a spiced sauce."
Home to more than a billion people, speaking more than a dozen languages and of hugely different ethnicities, India has at least 35 recognized cuisines. Each cuisine is greatly influenced by local ingredients, geography, history and religion. The cuisines of the eastern shores of India, for instance, rely heavily on mustard as the region is blessed with flowing yellow mustard fields. The coastal south, thick with coconut palms, uses coconut milk, grated coconut and even coconut oil in its cuisines.
In addition, throughout history, foreign rulers brought in varied styles of cooking, and traders brought ingredients that also influenced local cuisines. Religion, too, plays a significant part, often dictating what can and cannot be eaten and even guiding methods of food preparation. But so do individual families. The techniques used to prepare the dishes and even the spice blends are unique to the specific regions and many times even to the families within the regions. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the preparation of the ubiquitous chicken curry.
So just for a taste of this diversity and variety, I set out to discover how Indian Americans, living in the Washington area, prepare chicken curry.
I randomly contacted Indian people through the phone book, Indian organizations, the online food community eGullet.com and through friends. I asked them a simple question: How do you make chicken curry?
Two of the recipes below had been handed down from grandparents or great-grandparents. But the responses revealed more. Over the years, their recipes have taken on the identity of the people who cook them -- more so than they reflect the region of their origin. With changes such as the use of pre-made spice mixes and canned tomatoes, the trend toward healthier ingredients like spinach and the choice of alternative meats, these recipes show another kind of evolution.
A story I heard a few years ago sums it up best. A husband says to his wife, "Honey, I love the way you bake ham. But why do you cut the end off? That is my most favorite part."
"My mother cooks it this way," she replies. "It's tradition."
Later she calls her mother. "Mom, why do we cut the end of the ham?"
The mother does not know.
She calls her mother-in-law, from whom she learned the recipe.
"Why do we cut the ends off, Mama?"
"Ah, that," says the 100-year-old mother-in-law. "When I first cooked a ham, I didn't have a pan big enough."
These recipes provide a mere window into a very diverse and complex nation. To point out the individual influences , each recipe is named for its contributor.
Binni's Bihari Chicken Curry
3 to 4 servings
To Binni Chadda, 27, an epidemiologist from Germantown, chicken curry is the recipe made by her grandmother. Her family is from the Indian state of Bihar, which is where Buddha is said to have obtained enlightenment. Bihari food is simple yet flavorful. This family favorite has been modified to include spinach "to make sure you get your veggies in one pot."
Serve this chicken curry traditionally as Chadda's grandmother did, with steamed basmati rice, or as Chadda does, with whole wheat chappaties -- Indian griddle bread, available in the freezer section at your local Indian grocer.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 small red onions, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons peeled and grated ginger root
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
11/2 teaspoons garam masala
1 green serrano chili pepper, seeded and minced
3 small tomatoes, skin-on, pureed, or 1 cup canned tomatoes, pureed
11/2 pounds chicken pieces, bone-in
2 cups frozen spinach (two 10-ounce packages), thawed and patted dry
1 cup water
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the onions and cook until lightly browned, 7 to 10 minutes. If the onions begin to stick, add a few tablespoons of water.
Add the ginger, garlic, turmeric and garam masala and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add the chili pepper and tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 7 minutes.
Add the chicken and cook until the chicken is cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Add the spinach and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the water, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Add salt to taste. Serve hot.
Per serving (based on 4): 397 calories, 30 gm protein, 16 gm carbohydrates, 25 gm fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 5 gm saturated fat, 475 mg sodium, 5 gm dietary fiber
Anoop and Sangeeta's Delhi Chicken Curry
3 to 4 servings
Originally from India's capital city of New Delhi, Anoop Mittra, 42, and his family have been settled in Herndon for about seven years. He describes himself as a true Delhi native: full of vigor, life and an obsessive love of food. Their version of chicken curry is inspired by their Delhi roots -- made with a base of onions and tomatoes and a handful of spices. This is the most recognizable chicken curry in the West. Their modifications save time yet don't compromise on the taste. They use a readily available spice mix (MDH brand) instead of collecting and grinding 14 different spices. The style of cooking has remained the same: slow cooking to ensure that the spices are allowed to release their flavors.
Serve with steamed basmati rice and/or an Indian bread of your choice (roti, paratha or naan).
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 whole cloves
1 black cardamom pod (may substitute green cardamom pod)
2 to 3 green cardamom pods
1 large red onion, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons peeled and minced ginger root
8-ounce can tomato sauce or 1 cup canned tomato puree
3 teaspoons curry powder
1/4 teaspoon paprika or deghi mirch* (optional)
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
21/2 to 3 pounds chicken pieces, bone-in
11/4 cups water
Fresh cilantro sprigs (optional garnish)
Slivered fresh ginger root (optional garnish)
In a large, preferably nonstick, skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the cloves, cardamom, onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the ginger and cook for 1 more minute. Add the tomato sauce, mix well and cook, stirring occasionally, until the oil begins to separate, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the curry powder and the cayenne, if using, and cook for 1 minute.
Add salt and chicken and stir gently to coat them well with the tomato mixture. Add 1/4 cup of water and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally to evenly cook all the pieces, for 8 to 10 minutes.
Add the remaining 1 cup of water and mix well. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the curry to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to medium and cook until the chicken is cooked through and the curry begins to thicken slightly, 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken. Sprinkle, if desired, with cilantro and ginger.
NOTE: Deghi mirch is similar to paprika. It lends a fiery red color to foods without adding heat.
Per serving (based on 4): 627 calories, 53 gm protein, 9 gm carbohydrates, 42 gm fat, 190 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 1111 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber
Rashme's Kashmiri Chicken Curry
3 to 4 servings
Rashme Dhar, 40, and her family are from the state of Jammu and Kashmir, nestled in the Himalayas. They have lived in Ellicott City for the past five years. Her chicken curry does not use onions or tomatoes but is cooked in traditional Kashmiri style using yogurt, ginger and fennel powder. It is referred to as yakhni curry. Typically yakhni is prepared with lamb; this recipe has been modified to be prepared with chicken.
Enjoy this dish with steamed basmati rice.
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 cup water
2 black cardamom pods (may substitute green cardamom pods)
2 or 3 whole cloves
2-inch stick cinnamon
3 teaspoons ground fennel
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups plain yogurt (not low-fat or no-fat)
Pinch of asafoetida* (optional)
2 bay leaves
5 green cardamom pods
About 1 teaspoon garam masala
Fresh mint leaves (optional garnish)
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan on medium or medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the chicken and cook, turning as necessary, until the chicken is browned on all sides but not cooked through, 5 to 10 minutes. (May need to work in batches.)
Add the water, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon to the skillet (for easier retrieval, tie the black cardamom, cloves and cinnamon in a piece of cheesecloth or place in a tea ball). Add the fennel, ginger and salt, bring to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool for about 10 minutes.
Strain the mixture, reserving the liquid and chicken separately. You should have about 1/2 cup of liquid. Remove and discard the whole spices.
In a large measuring cup or bowl, whisk the yogurt until smooth and then whisk in 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Set aside.
Wipe out the saucepan, return it to medium heat and heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the pinch of asafoetida, if desired, the bay leaves and green cardamom and cook, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds.
Stir the yogurt-cooking liquid mixture into the oil, increase the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring constantly so that the yogurt does not separate, for a few minutes. Return the chicken pieces to the pan simmer until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce thickens slightly, 5 to 7 minutes. Before serving, sprinkle with the garam masala and, if desired, the mint leaves.
NOTE: Asafoetida powder, also known as hing, is the dried sap of a plant in the parsley family. It is very potent in aroma and flavor; its nickname is "devil's dung."
Per serving (based on 4): 358 calories, 38 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 101 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 734 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber
Shewta's Mangalorean Chicken Curry
3 to 4 servings
Shewta Amin, 24, moved to Germantown earlier this year. Although she was raised in northern India, her curry reflects her roots from the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Laden with coconut and tamarind, it's typical of the coastal cuisine of the city of Mangalore in Karnataka. This curry is typically served with neer dosas -- specialized Indian crepes prepared with rice -- or plain steamed basmati rice.
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds* (may substitute brown or yellow mustard seeds)
5 or 6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 cup grated coconut (fresh or frozen)
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 or 2 whole dried red chili peppers
1 tablespoon tamarind paste or concentrate
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup water
11/2 pounds chicken pieces, bone-in and skin-on
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
8 to 10 curry leaves*
In a small, dry skillet over medium heat, toast the coriander, cumin and 1/2 teaspoon of the mustard seeds just until the spices begin to release their fragrance. Remove from the heat; transfer to a plate and set aside to cool.
In a food processor or using a mortar and pestle, grind the roasted spices until a powder forms. Add 3 to 5 cloves of garlic, onion, coconut, turmeric and chili peppers and process until a paste forms. Set aside.
In a bowl, combine the tamarind paste, salt and 1/4 cup of water until smooth. (May need to use additional water.) Stir into the coconut-onion paste to obtain a smooth consistency. In a medium skillet over medium heat, heat the sauce for 5 to 7 minutes, until the water evaporates completely and the sauce thickens.
Add the chicken pieces and cook, turning occasionally, until the chicken is fully cooked, about 25 minutes.
Add the remaining 1/2 cup of water, stir and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat; remove and discard the cloves of garlic.
Heat the oil in a small skillet on medium heat. Add the remaining clove(s) of garlic and saute until the garlic changes color, about 1 minute. Add the curry leaves and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of mustard seeds and cook, stirring frequently, until the seeds begin to pop.
Pour the spiced oil mixture over the chicken. Serve hot.
NOTE: Black mustard seeds are smaller and more potent than yellow ones. Fresh curry leaves resemble small bay leaves and have a fragrance reminiscent of limes. These ingredients are available at Indian, Asian and some specialty grocers.
Per serving (based on 4): 351 calories, 27 gm protein, 7 gm carbohydrates, 24 gm fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 10 gm saturated fat, 679 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber
Monica Bhide is the author of "The Spice Is Right: Easy Indian Cooking for Today" (Callawind Publications, 2001) and "The Everything Indian Cookbook" (Adams Media, 2004). Her Web site is www.monicabhide.com.
Ellicott City resident Rashme Dhar, at far left, uses yogurt, ginger and fennel powder in her chicken curry.
Binni Chadda of Germantown, at left, includes spinach.
OF NEW DELHI
Herndon residents Anoop and Sangeeta Mittra's version is made with a base of onions, tomatoes and spices. OF MANGALORE, KARNATAKA
Bethesda resident Shewta Amin's dish is laden with coconut and tamarind.