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Keralan chicken stew

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.

Keralan food

More and more I find myself captivated by the cuisine of the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. It is less sweet and meaty than the cuisines of northern India, and focuses instead on fish, green chilis, coconut, mustard seeds, and oddly, rice used as a seasoning. The tastes are fresh, nutty and crisp, like a breath of cool air. Another ingredient found in most dishes are curry or kari leaves, which have nothing to do with curry but are highly aromatic.

The plate above holds shrimp cooked in coconut milk, a Madhur Jaffrey recipe; I used canned milk (but a reputable brand recommended by Su-mei Yu); it is offset by an ingredient called kodampoli or fish tamarind, which is smoky and sour. Kodampoli is not tamarind at all and is hard to find - I used lemon juice.

The other dish is another Keralan favorite that I've written about here before, okra with yogurt. I could eat buckets of it.

Coconut prawns and okra yogurt

OK, I may have gone crazy with this okra thing, but it's actually a fantastic vegetable. Wholly underrated, Americans have learned to hate it because when cooked with water it loses all its texture and deflates into mush. Indians never allow water to touch okra.

Above is actually a leftovers plate from a dinner I made a couple weeks ago before the Mission Of Burma show in Williamsburg (which was great, if deafening). Both dishes are, again, from Kerala, and feature the ubiquitous kari leaves (or curry leaves - not that there is anything curry-ish about them as we understand that word). The prawns in coconut milk use a substance called kadampoli to add a sour tincture. I was unable to find it; you can substitute lemon juice, but I used tamarind instead. (Kadampoli is also known as fish tamarind, but in fact is unrelated to tamarind, all incredibly confusing.) The other dish is okra that is stir-fried in spices in oil and then folded into yogurt; meanwhile you fry some more spices in the okra-flavored oil and then fold that into the okra-yogurt mixture. It's more-ish.

Green chile chicken and okra with two mustards

A couple of Madhur Jaffrey classics last night. The green chili chicken is a southern Indian dish from Kerala state, specifically from the Jewish community in Cochin. It was the dish served at Friday night supper, for the Sabbath. Despite the name it is not particularly spicy - the chiles lend it some bitterness. The other key ingredients are the typically Keralan kari leaves and, for sourness, tamarind that has been soaked and strained to form a paste. The chicken is braised, bone-in.

Okra with two mustards is a Bengalese dish, wonderfully piquant and tart. The two mustards are ground brown and yellow mustard seeds, which are used to form a sauce with turmeric, red chili powder, water and a couple of whole green chiles. The okra is stir-fried first in oil infused with nigella seed (kalonji), and then simmered in the sauce for ten minutes - it is crisp and intact this way. Here is the spice mixture for the okra:

I served these dishes with basmati rice, and for cooling purposes and textural contrast, cold onion and cucumber relishes.

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