27 April 2012

Tamil Coconut Chilli Chicken - a revelation!

Prior to cooking this recipe, I've not had a great deal of cause to pay much attention to the Tamil Nadu area of Southern India.  However, since tasting this amazingly gorgeous dish, I've been on a bit of a "seek and ye shall find" exercise.  So now I still don't know much about the place - as there is just so much to know - but I know a bit more than I did and can at least picture its wonderful carvings and temples!

I was attracted to this recipe because it struck me as having all the hallmarks of an interestingly flavoured dish as it contained chicken, onion, garlic, ginger, chilli etc., all the traditional base flavours to a curry.  However, thereafter it went off on a different tangent, involving black peppercorns, coconut milk and lime juice.  In fact, there was no mention of curry powder or curry leaves and although the spices included coriander, cumin and turmeric, it still wasn't saying "curry" to me.

In addition, the recipe spoke of using two tablespoonfuls of flour mixed with some of the coconut milk, as a thickener at the end of the dish's cooking time.  Well, of course, I've used flour as a thickener at the beginning of a recipe (as in a beef stew) for the same reason, plus I've used cornflour at the end of a recipe as a thickener (although I'm not keen on the texture of cornflour).  I was a bit concerned that the flour wouldn't cook out in the time it had available and the sauce would wind up being quite floury tasting.  However, it was quite the opposite.  The mix was bubbling away in the pan - quite obviously requiring thickening - and so (being on the cautious side) I added half the mixture and stirred like crazy.  Wowser - instant thickening.  I gave it a couple of minutes to cook out and tasted the sauce - as gorgeous as it had been and with no sign of any flouriness.  What magic was this?  As the sauce still wasn't thick enough, I added the last spoonful.  Again, instant thickening and no trace of flouriness.  Well.  You learn something new every day!

Now I've seen a technique where a very thick roux (just the butter/flour mixture - no milk) is made and stored in the fridge.  Pieces are broken off and used to thicken gravies and soups, so I assume this is very much along the same lines, except that the flour isn't cooked out until it hits the wet sauce.  In my head, this uncooked flour method shouldn't work - but it quite categorically did.  I've tucked the method behind my ear and shall try it out on other sauces that require thickening.  If it works on an assortment of different sauces, then it might be the key to hubby's "pond water" problem with sauces!

As for the method of making this wonderful revelation of a dish, it doesn't get a lot easier.  Hubby very kindly acted as my sous chef on the day, however, it really only requires you to chop three or four ingredients.  After that, it's just an assembly job accompanied by varying degrees of heat!  For me, that equates to a perfect recipe.  I'm not required to move around the kitchen much (as I can really only stand for 2-3 minutes at a time) and I can just park my chair by the cooker and get cracking.  Perfect.

Oh yes, there's a difference in the cooking method for the spices too.  Every other "curry type" dish I've made involved your frying off the onion, followed by the garlic and ginger, then adding the toasted spices, whatever meat you're using, followed by the liquid.  This one did everything the other way around!

You begin by toasting off the spices in a dry frying pan, which is usual, except for the fact that you include the ground turmeric - which has always previously been added at the stage when you add some liquid to the pan.  In this instance, the toasted turmeric changed colour to a much deeper gold and tasted amazing.  Cooking the onions in butter that is mixed with the toasted spices created such a mouthwatering aroma, too.  In fact, the dish just went on getting better and better the more stages you followed.

One point that is well worth making, is the decision to use butter, ghee or peanut oil.  I wound up using 50:50 butter and peanut oil.  I reckoned that the onions would be lovely cooked in butter and it would give the dish a nice richness.  After that, I used the peanut oil, which will give the dish a subtle sweetness and the nuttiness of the oil will only blend well with the coconut milk.

I was very curious as to how to the lime juice would interact with the sauce and - long before the lime juice was due to be added, I cheated and put a little sauce on a teaspoon, along with a teensy tiny bit of the lime juice.  Oh yes!  I understood where the entire dish was going, after that - and felt much more confident about it.

You know, there are recipes that are successful in that they deliver what you are anticipating.  Then there are recipes that are successful because everyone enjoys them.  Then, there are recipes that deliver something so delightfully surprising - and everyone loves it - that they just transcend successful.  This is one of those.  If you can cope with curry spices (and the dish wasn't so spicy hot, not even with black peppercorns, ginger and two green chillies in it.  Although, having said that, I only put 1 tsp of ginger in, as hubby can be sensitive to ginger), then please give this recipe a go.  I promise you, you won't regret it.


Ingredients :

4-6 tbsp butter or peanut oil (I used 50:50 butter and peanut oil)
2 onions, sliced
4 garlic cloves, crushed
5 cm fresh ginger, peeled and grated (I used ready prepared ginger - 1tsp)
2 green chillies, deseeded and chopped
3 skinless chicken breasts, diced into chunks
250ml boiling chicken stock or water
450ml canned coconut milk
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tbsp plain flour
a large bunch of fresh coriander, chopped
Roasted spices:
1 tsp crushed dried chillies, bruised
1 tbsp coriander seeds, bruised
1 tsp black peppercorns, bruised
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp ground turmeric.

Method :
1.  To roast the spices, put the dried chillies, coriander seeds, peppercorns, cumin seeds and turmeric in a dry frying pan and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes until aromatic.
2.  Push the spices to one side.  Add a good knob of butter to the frying pan and as that melts, add the onions and sauté for 4-5 minutes, mixing in the spices as you go.
3.  Add a little peanut oil to lubricate the mix, then add the garlic, ginger, the green chillies and the chicken. Stir-fry for about 8-10 minutes on a high heat - alternately stirring and resting to allow the chicken to brown - until the chicken is nicely golden.
4.  Put the flour into a small bowl and add around 5ml of the coconut milk to it.  Stir to make sure all the lumps are gone, then set aside.
5.  Add the stock and the bulk of the coconut milk to the pan.  Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until tender, about about 20-30 minutes, depending on how big you've cut the chicken.
6.  Stir in the lime juice, then add salt to taste.
7.  Stir a good teaspoonful of the flour mixture into the sauce and stir like crazy, increasing the heat if necessary, until the sauce thickens evenly.  If the sauce needs more thickening, just repeat with the remaining flour mixture.
8.  Stir in the chopped coriander leaves and serve with other Indian dishes such as coconut rice or chapatis.
Source: Chicken from Maryland to Kiev by Clare Ferguson (Ryland, Peters & Small)

Printable version here.


  1. Enjoyed reading your recipe, very detailed. Will tryout it, perticullarly the sauce thickening technique. Good blog Jenny !

    1. Wow, I'd be humbled if you would try it Bipin! You may well want to increase the chilli, as it was really fairly mild - but I'll leave that up to you. :) Thank you for your kind words - and let me know how you get on with it!

  2. I love Southern indian food, coconut and chilli are so good together. I'll be making this for sure, thanks Jenny

    1. Oh, I'd love it if you did! Do come back and let me know how you got on with it, won't you?


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