Lasooni Murgh/Chicken cooked in a garlicky sauce: Cooking with the once forbidden meat

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Methi/Fenugreek seeds

Just as the chicken nuggets sold at McDonalds barely resemble real chicken, the modern chicken is about as different as can be from its ancestors. It might be a little bit of a stretch for the imagination, but you must believe me when I say that mighty dinosaurs are the forefathers of the humble bird you see today. Trust me on this one – I’m a zoologist. Of course, they didn’t just change in one jump – the immediate ancestor is the red jungle fowl, from which the chicken were domesticated by early humans. As wild fowls were inefficient flyers, domesticating them was much easier compared to other flying birds. Anyhow, the modern day chicken ultimately turned out to be a mix of several fowl species and it’s hard to pinpoint the actual lineage.

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Possibly explaining the continued love of Indians and Pakistanis for tandoori chicken, Lothal, which was a port city in the Indus Valley civilization is believed to be the birthplace of the domesticated chicken. Eventually, it traveled to eastwards to China and westward to the Mesopotamian civilization. The “royal bird of Meluhha” described in ancient Near Eastern texts around 2000 B.C. most likely refers to chicken, which although commonplace today, at that point was still an exotic bird imported from Indus Valley.

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Would you believe that people once bred chickens but didn’t even think about eating them? Although it’s now a staple protein the world over, chickens were not originally domesticated to be used as an edible meat. Instead, they were mainly used for divination and cock fights. Anyhow, they were the essential compromise candidate in Indian cuisine because both Hindus (who would die before eating beef) and Muslims (for whom pork is an even bigger no-no) settled on the tender white flesh of the poor chickens. But this took a while, and up until fairly recently chickens were considered inedible by Indians irrespective of religion. Among many possible reasons, one theory goes that chickens were scavengers and grazed the ground for mostly insects, worms and seeds, and were hence considered dirty animals. It was forbidden to the Hindus so recently that even Dr. Sen’s grandfather had to hide and eat it with friends in the mid-1930’s.  Although duck, geese, pigeons and other wild fowls were mentioned in Mughal cuisine, chickens were excluded from Akbar’s inventory. As such, it’s somewhat hard to know when exactly the “forbidden” chicken left the cockfighting ring and entered the domestic kitchens in India. In a fatal role reversal for the poor birds, the Egyptians are thought to bred them only for the eggs, but the Indians took the meat and ran with it.

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This Lasooni curry is a very simple chicken curry made with few ingredients. It’s loaded with garlic and truly justifies its name (lasoon or lehsan is garlic in Hindi). As garlic is considered to be heat-inducing by Ayurvedic principles, this dish is perfect for winter menus. The kasuri methi or dried fenugreek leaves give it a smoky touch with a very slight hint of bitterness. The yogurt balances the garlic and the bitterness taste and gives the gravy a mildly tangy taste and velvety body. Best served with hot rotis/fulkas, but eating it with rice is not a bad option either.

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Dried Fenugreek leaves on the left

Recipe:

This recipe is tweaked from here.

Chicken: 1.7 lbs (that’s what I had in the freezer)

Garlic: 3-4 fat garlic cloves, minced very finely or make a paste of it

Dahi/Yogurt: ½ cup

Methi/Fenugreek seeds: 1 tsp.

Dry red chillies: 2-3

Kasoori methi/Dried fenugreek leaves: a big pinch

Tejpatta/Bay leaves: 2

Green chilies: 4-5 (depending on how hot you want your chicken)

Turmeric: 1 heaped tsp.

Mustard oil/White oil: 2 tbsp. (I use mustard oil by default in my Indian cooking unless there’s a reason not to. But feel free to use your favorite oil)

Water: I cup boiling hot

Salt to taste

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Kasoori Methi/Dried Fenugreek Leaves

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  • Wash and drain the chicken completely.
  • Heat up the oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed wok/kadai.
  • Turn the heat really low and add the methi seeds. Allow the seeds to sizzle until the seeds turn a shade darker. It will flavor the oil very nicely.
  • Take out more than half the methi seeds, otherwise you’ll be biting on a bitter seed very frequently.
  • Add the dried red chillies and the bay leaves and allow them to sizzle a little bit as well.
  • Add the garlic and sauté the garlic in the oil for a minute or so to infuse the oil with garlic flavor. As there are very few spices, you want to make sure that the oil is loaded with the flavors. But don’t let the garlic burn, it sould take a light golden brown color.
  • Add the drained chicken pieces, sprinkle the turmeric and sauté on medium-high heat for several minutes, coating them with the oil.
  • Turn the heat low or put the pot on a cold burner and then add the yogurt. Make sure the yogurt is in room temperature and well beaten. This step is crucial because it will prevent the gravy from turning into granules. You want velvety-silky-smooth gravy.
  • Stir the whole thing several times to bring up the temperature of yogurt so that you can return the pot to the original burner.
  • Keep sautéing/turning the chickens on medium high heat.
  • The meat might release a lot of water. In that case keep sautéing until oil releases from the sides.
  • Add the kasoori methi and sauté for a minute.
  • Add water and salt and bring it to a boil. Add the green chillies spilt halfway through. Keep boiling on low-medium heat until you get a smooth gravy and the raw taste of the yogurt/spices are gone. Check for salt and add more if needed.
  • Make sure you have a lot more gravy than you prefer because the chicken is going to soak up almost half the liquid.
  • Let the whole thing rest for 15-20 minutes. This step is very necessary because it will make the chicken absorb the gravy and the gravy will reach its desired consistency. Reheat a little bit before serving.
  • I like mine with lots of gravy to soak up my rotis and eat the gravy with a spoon. It’s very refreshing on a cold winter night. If you wish, you can adjust the consistency according to your liking.

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Tomato garlic chili chicken and busting the myth about chili powder

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When I was growing up, I heard the same thing over and over again from my Maa. She said “it’s not good to eat a lot of red chilli powder” and she added green chilies to everything she cooked, reserving the red chili powder for the unavoidable dishes. The theory was, too much of it can rip off your stomach lining and cause ulcers. I never asked Maa how much was too much, as at the time I was quite uninterested in cooking myself. Recently I heard the same thing from one of my friends; suddenly I thought about reading up on the truth about red chili powder and deciding based on fact rather than hearsay as to whether it is indeed harmful.

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Chilies (which Americans call chili peppers although chilies are not peppers), are originally from the South America and are an indispensable item in South America and Asian cuisine. Although introduced to India and Asia much later by the Portuguese, chilies rapidly gained extreme popularity across all of Asia. Indeed, I cannot imagine my kitchen without having my stock of fresh green chilies and also a jar full of red hot powdered red chilies.

Chilies, both fresh and dried, are rich in nutrition. The main component responsible for the fumes which come out of your nostrils and ears after you consume chilies is called capsaicin. Capsaicin is responsible for releasing endorphins (the pleasure hormones), maybe explaining why some people (like my husband) are quite addicted to hot foods. From a medical perspective, capsaicin has long been used in rubs and ointments as an analgesic and pain killer. Further, capsaicin is known to have anti-bacterial component and believed to be anti-carcinogenic for certain types of gut cancers. It also helps in digestion if eaten in moderate quantity. This resolves the apparent paradox that Naga jolokias, the world’s hottest peppers, are used by some tribes in Northeast India as a cure for stomach ailments.  Apart from capsaicin, chilies in general are rich in antioxidants like Vitamin A and contain a large amount of Vitamin B complex and Vitamin C.

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Coming back to where we started-  why do chilies have such bad reputation then? Why are my Maa and my friend so cautious about using it? Looks like they had no clue what they were talking about. It’s one of those things which you learn from your mother which she learnt from her mother and the theory goes from one generation to another without being exposed to the scalpel of rationality (knowing the adulteration culture in India, red chili powders are contaminated with inedible/harmful ingredients like colored saw dust, the warning from my friend, my grandma and my mom might have a background there).

First myth: Green chilies are healthier than red chilies: Wrong. There are no significant differences between the two (although the vitamin C content might reduce while drying). The dried chilies are dehydrated, hence more concentrated in terms of heat. The drying changes the flavor as well.

Second myth: Red chili powder is bad for you: Wrong. If you are familiar with the word ‘moderation’, you are more likely to benefit from it than being harmed. So, turn up the heat and enjoy the endorphin release, just don’t go overboard. Too much of anything is bad, even water. So, don’t blame the harmless chilli powder – blame your measuring spoon instead. And yes, did I tell you how easy it is to make your own chili powder? It takes just a few minutes and you can be certain that there is no adulteration.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Organic, free range chicken: around 2.5 lbs.

Tomatoes: two medium, vine ripened, chopped

Garlic: three medium cloves (a little more will add extra flavor if you are a garlic lover like me) very finely minced

Preferably mustard oil: 2 tbsp. (replace it with olive oil if you do not have mustard oil)

Red chili powder/cayenne pepper powder: 1 tbsp. or more if you like it to be hot (the tartness of the tomatoes will cut back on the heat a lot)

Turmeric: ½ tsp. (optional)

Water: 11/2 cups (adjust to your liking)

Salt to taste

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  • Heat up the oil in a heavy bottom pot/kadai. If you are using mustard oil, do not let it smoke, it will destroy all the nutrition. Let it heat up on medium flame. This is a very important step.
  • Once the oil is hot, remove the pot from the fire and add the garlic. Let the garlic sizzle in the warm oil for 10-15 seconds. Put the pot back on fire.
  • Add the chopped tomatoes and add a tea spoon of salt. Mix it well. Let the tomatoes sweat a bit and then break the tomatoes with the spoon a little bit. It will help the tomatoes cook faster.
  • Add the red chili powder/cayenne pepper and the turmeric (if using). Again mix them well. Keep stirring the paste every so often until the raw taste of the tomatoes is almost gone (around 5 minutes).
  • Add the chicken (try to tap the moisture a bit) and mix them well with the spices. Turn the heat to high and stir the chicken very often to dry up the water released from the meat.
  • Once you see that the excess water is gone and the spices have taken a paste like consistency and hugging the meat, you know you are ready to add water.
  • Add around a cup of hot water, add salt and give it a good stir.
  • Let the whole thing come to a boil and reduce the heat again to medium. Cook it until the meat is done and the gravy has reached almost its desired consistency.
  • Let the chicken rest for at least 15-20 minutes before serving (if possible). That way, the meat will absorb the flavor and the gravy will come to its desired consistency.
  • Serve piping hot with roti or any bread of your choice (can be eaten with rice but it will taste better with bread). Dip the breads in the gravy and enjoy.

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