from one generation to the next
India holds a place dear to my heart. I can’t claim blood ties or colonial affiliations, it’s simply a deep and inescapable affection that descended on me during my travels there a decade ago.
I was enchanted from the moment I left the confines of the New Delhi’s airport terminal at midnight to be greeted by a sea of white bearded men, anxiously awaiting the return of loved ones from visiting Mecca. That sight alone created the sense I was in a movie set. The yellow overhead lights, the smoky mist and the smell of dung fires reinforced the other worldliness of the moment.
It was a preview for the most extraordinary experience of my life. One journey was not enough so I returned to India to explore further not once but twice.
My second trip took me to India’s south. Centuries of sea trade with the Portuguese and French, along with the influence of a large Syrian Christianity community in exile have westernised the culture to a much greater degree than further north while access to exotic ingredients from further east has added complexity and nuance to the flavour of the food.
Chillies are used generously in the food of South India and seafood is served in abundance. The coconut and the curry leaf are commonplace, although, as in the north of India, small communities have developed their own unique cuisine.
Vivid memories of a riotously colourful temple festival, vast ornate mansions, gracious old world accommodation and seriously delicious food mark my time spent in Karaikudi, the heartland of India’s Chettinad community. The unique food of the Chettiar, an ancient caste of bankers and traders is renowned for it’s nuanced flavour featuring peppercorns and spices normally associated with the food from far eastern Asia.
The most widely known dish is Chettinad Pepper Chicken. This is my adaptation of a recipe from “The Indian Cookery Course” by Monisha Bharadwaj.
1 teaspoon of dried chilli flakes
3/4 teaspoon black peppercorns, cracked
1 teaspoon of aniseed
3 green cardamom pods, seeds removed and husks discarded
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 teaspoons garlic infused oil
12 fresh curry leaves
800g boneless chicken thighs, cut into 2cm dice
3 whole star anise
2 green chillies, finely sliced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
2 spring onions, green tops only, sliced
1 tomato chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
sea salt flakes to taste
Heat a dry pan and roast the chilli, peppercorns, aniseed, cloves and cardamon until aromatic and toasty. Crush to a powder in the mortar and pestle. Add the ground cinnamon.
Heat the oils in a large lidded saute pan.
Add the curry leaves and sizzle until aromatic.
Add the chicken and saute until golden brown.
Add all the remaining ingredients and a couple of tablespoons of water.
Bring the pan to the boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove the lid, taste the sauce and add salt to taste.
Serves 6 with accompaniments.
What to serve with curry?