Today’s recipe is a true gem, borrowed from the small island nation of Sri Lanka just south of India. Sri Lankan cuisine shares many similarities with South Indian cuisine, especially those of Kerala and southern Tamil Nadu cuisines. This probably has to do with geographical and cultural similarities. In my quest to try different kinds of chicken curries, I decided to try a Sri Lankan version.
This chicken curry might look very similar to a traditional Indian curry, but there are subtle, yet very important differences. One main ingredient in this curry is tamarind, which lends a slightly sweet and tangy flavor to the curry. I can vouch that tamarind does add a certain flair to this curry, something which cannot be replicated if you were to use lime juice or even vinegar as the acidic component.
Then there is the perennial south Indian favorite, curry leaves. It is used extensively in this recipe, in the dry spice mix and as fresh whole leaves. As for the spice mix, there is something called a Ceylon (or Sri Lankan) curry powder which goes into this curry. It is basically roasted and ground coriander, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, fennel, cumin, dried red chilies and curry leaves. You can either make it yourself following recipes from the internet or try to find it in your supermarket. Now, both of these things did not happen here. I found that the ingredient list for Ceylon curry powder happens to be very very similar to the slightly more famous and easily available Madras curry powder. I am generally not a big fan of spice blends or “curry” powders, and prefer to make my own. But I did have a bottle of Madras curry powder in my spice rack that I use sometimes in a quick Indian style stir fry or gravy-like dish. It is very different from the more famous garam masala blend, and has a stronger, more pungent, earthy flavor and goes excellently with vegetables and meat.
And finally, the curry is finished with a bit of thick coconut milk, just enough to round out the strong flavors.
This dish comes together very easily, especially if you use the shortcut curry powder. Just be patient to cook the chicken in its own juices till tender. The result is a gorgeous, finger-licking delicious curry.
I have made this a few times now and always served it with rice and some sort of quick vegetable stir fry. What you see here is a combo of asparagus and fresh green peas sauteed with coconut like a South Indian poriyal/thoran. You can also serve this curry with another Sri Lankan and South Indian favorite – string hoppers.
Needless to say, this curry makes for amazing leftovers and tastes immensely better the next day. On to the recipe now.
SRI LANKAN CHICKEN CURRY
You will need:
To marinate chicken,
- Chicken – 2 lbs, medium-sized bone-in pieces preferred
- Turmeric powder – 1/2 tsp
- Red chili powder – 1 tsp
- Madras curry powder – 1 tsp
- Black pepper – 1 tsp, freshly cracked
- Tamarind paste – 1 1/2 tsp (or 2-3 tbsp thick tamarind water, see Notes)
- Salt – 1 tsp
For the curry,
- Oil – 3 tbsp
- Onion – 1 large, finely chopped
- Ginger – 1″ knob, chopped
- Garlic – 5-6 cloves, crushed and chopped
- Curry leaves – 2 sprigs
- Whole spices – 1″ piece of cinnamon, 3-4 cloves, 3-4 green cardamom pods
- Red chili powder – 1 tsp
- Madras curry powder – 1 1/2 tsp
- Tomato – 1, chopped
- Coconut milk – 1/2 cup
- Cilantro leaves – to garnish (optional)
- Rub the chicken pieces with all of the marinade ingredients. Set aside in the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes.
- Heat oil in a large pan. Add onions, ginger, garlic and the leaves from a sprig of curry leaves (around 8 leaves). Saute till onions start to turn golden in color.
- Lightly crush the whole spices using a mortar-pestle and add to the onions. Stir around for a few seconds. Then add the red chili powder and curry powder and saute for a minute.
- Now add the marinated chicken pieces and toss around for 5 minutes without covering or adding water. Once the chicken pieces are coated with the masala, add the chopped tomatoes, give it a quick stir and cover with a lid. Cook the chicken on medium-low heat in its own juices. The chicken will let out enough water to get cooked.
- Once chicken is almost done, add the coconut milk and 6-8 more fresh curry leaves. Give it a gentle stir and continue cooking for 5 more minutes, or till chicken is very tender and curry is reduced to your liking.
- Garnish with fresh cilantro leaves. It is best if you have time to rest this curry for an hour or so to develop the flavors even more. Serve with steamed rice and a vegetable side or with string hoppers (idiyappams).
- Tamarind: Use 1 1/2 tsp of tamarind concentrate or 2-3 tbsp of extracted tamarind water. To do so, place a small lime-sized ball of fresh tamarind in warm water for 10 minutes. Gently massage the tamarind between your fingers to extract its pulp. Sieve to remove seeds and use as desired.
- Curry powder: Use Ceylon/Sri Lankan curry powder if you have it or replace with Madras curry powder.
And there you have it, my take on a traditional curry with a difference. Try this chicken curry and wow your family and friends on your next curry night!