October 21, 2013 – Curry is one of the earliest spice mixtures used by humans. New technology has enabled the testing of ancient cooking vessels to discover that the early versions of what we now call curry were in use more than a thousand years ago in India. In those days, tests have shown, curry was a mixture of ginger, garlic and turmeric. In subsequent centuries, especially after international trade began to boom in the 16th century, curry came to define a variety of spice mixtures. While ingredients differed from region to region, the common denominator was that curry was spicy. It still is.
What we now know as curry takes its name from the word kari, a Tamil word from the southern part of India. When the British arrived to assume their long domination of India, they were a bit bewildered by the wide variety of spice mixtures the local cooks used. They gave up trying to figure them out and just called them all curry. At some point an enterprising Indian merchant created a commercial variety of curry powder, which the British took home with them, thereby creating a taste for spices that rapidly spread around the world.
Curried dishes can contain most anything you can think of. Sort of the Southeast Asian version of gumbo. Meat. Poultry. Seafood. Vegetables. It can be dry, with all the liquid cooked out. Or wet. More like a soup, as in the Vietnamese version. Also in Vietnam curries tend to be sweeter, usually made with coconut milk and sweet potatoes.
I decided I like the Vietnamese concept of more liquid. I wanted to serve it over rice so I liked the idea of the soupy quality.
I wanted a chicken curry so I used boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Unlike their skeletal neighbors, the ubiquitous boneless, skinless chicken breasts, the thighs without the bones and skin actually retain the taste of chicken. Taste is important.
While the soupiness of the Vietnamese version appealed to me, the sweetness did not. I decided to go for a combination of sweet, spicy and a little bitter. I kept the coconut milk but opted for turnips instead of sweet potatoes and added some mushrooms. Along with a teaspoon of sugar, the coconut milk gave just the right amount of sweet that was nicely balanced by the slight bitterness of the turnip.
I also took a short cut and used a commercial curry powder that included coriander, fenugreek, turmeric and a little cayenne. Then for a little extra spice I tossed in a bit of crushed red pepper.
As my wife said, “Amazing!”
( Servings for two)
1 tablespoon peanut oil 2 bay leaves
1 – 1 ½ lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs 2 – 3 tablespoons curry powder to taste
10 – 12 oz Crimini mushrooms, sliced 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)
½ yellow onion, chopped 1 teaspoon sugar
1 clove garlic, minced Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups chicken broth 2 turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 14 oz can coconut milk Rice, cooked
1 stalk lemongrass, peeled & quartered Parsley (for garnish)
Cut the chicken thighs into bite-sized pieces.
Heat the peanut oil over high heat in a heavy Dutch oven or braising pan. Saute’ the chicken briefly until it is browned, two to four minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside.
Lower the heat to medium. Add the mushrooms and cook until they begin to soften, two to three minutes. Add the onion. Continue to cook until the onion is translucent and the mushrooms have cooked down a bit more, perhaps three to five minutes.
Add the chicken broth, coconut milk, lemongrass, bay leaves, curry powder, red pepper (if desired) and sugar. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer. Return the chicken to the pan and add the turnips. Simmer uncovered until the vegetables are soft and the liquid has thickened a bit, 30 to 35 minutes.
Serve over rice. Garnish with chopped parsley.