My sister sounded slightly anxious when she said to me , “Do you really know how mum used to make her chicken curry? I used to love eating it when I was little. Sadly, she never taught it to me!”
My sister is usually the one I ask for clarification and advice about our family recipes, so this was a strange turn of events. I assured her that I did indeed know how to prepare it and shared the recipe.
Many years before I left for college, my mum insisted that I learn to cook at least a few simple dishes. She taught me the family recipes for a few basic things — curries, basmati rice, and chapattis. It was enough for a student on a budget.
One of these was her recipe for chicken curry. It’s ridiculously simple but so tasty. Years after she taught it to me, however, I learned how my aunt makes it, so I made a few changes and I think it’s even better this way.
Even though this is a simple curry, there are a few things that you need to pay attention to. I have tried to include as much detail as possible at various points to make sure that your dish tastes as good as what I make at home.
My Mum’s Simple Chicken Curry
- 300 grams onions, thinly sliced
- Approximately 1 kg skinless chicken pieces on the bone (thighs and drumsticks if possible)
- 3 medium tomatoes
- ¼ cup flavorless oil for browning the onions
- ¼ cup flavorless oil for the curry
- 1 heaped teaspoon ginger paste
- 1 heaped teaspoon garlic paste
- 2 tablespoons yogurt
- 2 green chiles
- 1 tbsp coriander powder
- ½ tsp chile powder
- ¼ tsp turmeric powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 large stick of cinnamon or cassia bark
- 5 black pepper pods
- 3–4 cloves
Start by adding the whole spices and onions to a ¼ cup of oil in a pot.
Browning our onions
Turn the heat down and take your time to fry the onions gently until they caramelize and turn a lovely golden brown. It takes time to do this properly, so be patient! Don’t be tempted to turn the heat up and fry them as fast as possible.
The sweetness of the onions (enhanced by the cinnamon) and the fond they leave behind at the bottom are key to the flavor of this curry.
An unusual step
We are now going to do something slightly unusual and blend those fried onions along with the tomatoes into a paste. This helps to give our curry a nice and smooth consistency.
A blender or pestle and mortar work equally well for this. By the way, you can leave the whole spices in the pot; there’s no need to blend them.
Browning our chicken
The next step is to add the rest of the oil to the pot along with the chicken. We want to just lightly brown the chicken at this step, adding yet another layer of flavor to the dish.
Adding the aromatics and reducing our sauce
Turn the heat down, add the ginger and garlic paste, and fry until the raw smell of the garlic goes away, probably less than a minute.
We can now add to the pot the onion and tomato paste that we blended earlier, along with all the other powdered spices.
The bhunning (frying) technique
The next step is to cook the sauce along with the chicken on medium heat until you can see oil releasing at the sides and the bottom of the pot. It is important to do this, so please don’t skip it. Frying the sauce this way to release the oil (a technique called bhunning) gives the spices and the tomatoes time to cook down and flavor each other. If you skip this, your curry will not taste nice because the flavors won’t have fully developed. I use this technique in a lot of my curry dishes.
If you are worried about the amount of oil you will need to do this properly, here’s one tip: Use as little as you can get away with in the previous steps. When you get to this step, add a little bit more oil until you have enough to fry things properly.
It’s relatively easy to skim the oil from the final dish when you’re ready to eat. The layer of oil that you sometimes end up with at the top is called a tari by my family.
As a quick aside, we don’t have a word for curry in my language. The closest thing I can think of is saalan, which refers to a brown sauce that some dishes have. A lot of Indian and Pakistani dishes don’t have a sauce so are referred to as sukha or sukhi, which means dry. Dishes that only have vegetables, like saag aloo or aloo gobi, are great examples of this.
When you reach the oil separation stage, your sauce will develop a slightly darker color. We can now proceed to the next step, which is to add our yogurt.
Things to watch out for when adding yogurt
Quite often when people add cold yogurt from the fridge directly into the sauce (which is hot at this point), the yogurt splits and forms specks or dots. These remain visible in the final product.
Here are a few things that I always do to try and make sure this doesn’t happen:
- Always whisk your yogurt vigorously before adding it in. Doing this will increase its temperature, especially if you’re using it straight from the fridge.
- Try and take your yogurt out of the fridge ahead of time if possible, so that it’s at room temperature and not cold.
- Always add your yogurt in smaller batches and mix it into your sauce between each batch.
We now need to repeat the oil separation step! Once again, this is really important to do and it ensures that the yogurt has cooked down into the sauce properly, so please don’t skip it. Keep cooking the sauce until you see oil being released, just like we did earlier.
Once you’ve reached the oil separation stage a second time, our chicken curry is almost ready! The only thing left to do is to add a couple of pricked green chiles and water to make our sauce.
I don’t chop the chiles because I don’t want my curry to get too spicy. The green chiles themselves add a lovely and subtle hint of flavor that you will miss if you skip them.
How thick or thin you’d like your sauce to be is entirely up to you. Add the appropriate amount of water, lower the heat, and cook for 10–15 minutes. Check that your chicken has cooked properly before serving.
Garnish with freshly chopped coriander.
I sometimes add a tiny squeeze of lemon. No, that’s a lie. I love lemon in almost everything so I probably add it all the time.
I adore this chicken curry with plain, boiled basmati rice. Maybe I should do an article on that someday since I make it so often.
In the meantime, I hope you do try this recipe out, and if you do, please let me know how it goes!
Khusro Jaleel is a technology professional based in the U.K. who loves cooking and somehow accidentally ends up hosting too many dinner parties! He doesn’t consider himself a foodie because he rarely eats out. He is a huge advocate of home-cooked meals, made with love, presence, and attention.