This is a hearty, homey chicken stew. Like many Keralan dishes, it uses spices like black peppercorns, cloves and nutmeg and thus feels strangely Western… because we imported those spices from Kerala, from the sixteenth century onward. The main non-Western ingredient is coconut milk – I used canned, because I wasn’t up to hammering open the 16-20 dessicated supermarket coconuts it would have taken to yield that much milk. Doesn’t it look delicious? But that isn’t actually it – all the pictures of the stew turned out murky, so I put in the Keralan okra salad that I served with it – the creaminess there comes from yogurt.
I really enjoyed this dish – another winner from Madhur Jaffrey’s sadly out of print A Taste Of India. But it didn’t come close to her recipe for lamb in pickling spices, which I made the following day. It turned out much better than it did last year – I’m much more comfortable with the whole process of cooking Indian than I was then.
One thing I’ve noticed in Indian food, and especially Keralan dishes is that you often start by cooking something with a main ingredient, setting aside that first part, and then re-adding a different version of the main ingredient again at the end. In the okra recipe, you fry the okra in seasoned oil, remove it with a slotted spoon (reserving the oil), and mix it with yogurt that has ground black mustard seeds in it. Then you take the reserved oil and fry whole black mustard seeds in it (with asafetida and dried red chilis) and add this to the yogurt-okra mixture. The black mustard returns, in a different form, with the okra-infused oil, at the end of the preparation.
Similarly, in the chicken stew, after preparing a soffrito of onions and whole spices, you essentially braise the chicken pieces in thin coconut milk and add lime juice. Then, in part two, you make a second soffrito of shallots in coconut oil, add curry leaves, and then thick coconut milk – which joins the thin coconut milk in the main stew for a second simmering.
I don’t know why cookbooks don’t tell you the reasons why you do things. You usually pick up on this stuff after preparing a number of dishes a number of times. This particular theme – adding a variant of an ingredient toward the end of a dish, in a different form – seems to me quite common in Indian cuisine.