A mild-mannered chicken curry takes the chill out of a rainy autumn night

by Terry B on October 28, 2009

Ginger, garlic and cilantro team up with a number of spices in this simple, fragrant Chicken Curry. Recipe below.


One of the perils of living in a city like Chicago, with its rich cultural diversity and well-deserved reputation for authentic food of all ethnic stripes, is that your taste buds get spoiled.

When recent chilly, drizzly weather put me in the mood for attempting a curry dish, my spoiled taste buds were envisioning the robust flavors and aromas of Devon Avenue. The practical side of me, however, was looking for something simple, something doable on a weeknight.

I looked around at numerous recipes. Some sounded deliciously authentic, but more complicated than I felt like tackling at the moment. Others sounded a little too basic, a little to aimed at the American palate. Finally, I settled on one that had “good bone structure”—a satisfying number and variety of fresh ingredients and spices—then tweaked it a bit, adding a little heat and the liveliness of fresh cilantro.

In a recent New York Times article, “Vegetables Dressed In Chinese Robes,” Mark Bittman says of a shortcut using oyster sauce, “Admittedly this isn’t the most nuanced way to make Chinese-like food at home…” The term Chinese-like jumped out at me. So many ethnic dishes we cook at home are exactly that. Inspired by the original cuisine, like the original cuisine, but not exactly it. And often that’s okay. That was the case with this Indian-like chicken curry. It was not the authentically Indian flavor my taste buds were expecting, but it was fragrant, complex and satisfying on a chilly autumn night.

Chicken Curry
Serves 4

Canola oil
8 pieces chicken [I used thighs and drumsticks—see Kitchen Notes]
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2-inch piece of ginger, minced
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds [or yellow—see Kitchen Notes]
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons curry powder [see Kitchen Notes]
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper [optional—see Kitchen Notes]
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
3-inch stick cinnamon
2 cups reduced-sodium chicken stock
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

Cooked white rice

Heat a large, lidded nonstick skillet over medium-high flame. Add 2 tablespoons canola oil. Season chicken with salt and pepper and brown on both sides, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Reduce heat to medium and transfer chicken to plate. Add chopped onion to pan and sauté, stirring occasionally, until tender, 4 to 5 minutes.

Add garlic and ginger, adding more oil to pan if needed [I ended up adding a little oil a couple of times during the cooking process], and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add cumin and mustard seed, cooking until the mustard seeds begin to “pop.” Add the turmeric, curry powder and cayenne powder [if using] and cook, stirring constantly, 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the chopped tomatoes and cook 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chicken broth and cinnamon stick, stirring to combine ingredients and scraping up any browned bits. Return chicken and any accumulated juices to the pan. Cover and simmer until chicken is cooked, 35 to 45 minutes.

Transfer chicken to a plate. Stir in garam masala and most of the cilantro into the pan, reserving some to use as a garnish. Cook uncovered for just a minute or two to incorporate flavors. Garam masala loses its flavor as it cooks, so don’t overcook. Tastes sauce and add salt, if needed.

To serve, spoon rice onto 4 plates. Spoon sauce over rice and top with 2 chicken pieces. Garnish with chopped cilantro.

Kitchen Notes

Drumsticks, thighs or whole chicken? I used drumsticks and thighs, but you can use a whole chicken [about 3 pounds or so] cut into 8 pieces.

Mustard seeds—brown? Yellow? Mustard seeds appear a lot in Indian cuisine. Generally, brown seeds are preferred for their pungent flavor and a little kick of heat. If you can’t find brown, yellow will do.

Curry powder and cayenne pepper. Unlike, say, cumin or turmeric, curry isn’t a single ingredient. It’s a mix of spices that varies widely—by country, by region and by what’s being cooked. In India, it even varies kitchen to kitchen, because cooks make it up fresh every day. You’ll find lots of recipes online for making your own if you have the time and inclination. If you’re buying prepared curry powder, try to seek out ethnic markets or actual spice shops such as The Spice House or Penzeys Spices. Because curries vary so greatly, so will the heat intensity, from none at all to quite hot. Choose one that you can use the full 2 tablespoons the recipe calls for to get the maximum flavor. The curry powder I had on hand was a mild one, so I added 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper to heat things up a bit.


{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

dani October 28, 2009 at 6:57 am

As always, an appetizing photo, Terry.

Isn’t it wonderful to have the resources available now to explore other cuisines and adapt them to our own tastes? One thing I love about the internet is being able to order practically any ingredient.

I had to laugh the other day, though, when I found a flyer on my door from a new restaurant in the neighborhood proclaiming “New York Style” Chinese food.

Jason Sandeman October 28, 2009 at 7:16 am

Nice curried chicken. I love it when something comes together in an inspired way. I could eat your dish and love every bit of it too. I also like when you take a lot of steps to make a curry. An example is the tomato masala. Simple in execution, yet so picky in the details.

Ronnie Ann October 28, 2009 at 3:29 pm

Nice! What I love most about your blog – and there are many things – is the way you manage to combine rich taste and texture with good old-fashioned doability. Gotta say this one looks especially yummy – just right for a chilly autumn evening like tonight. Do you deliver?

Laura October 28, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Looks pretty authentic to me…although without the endless spice grinding! Gorgeous photo…it’s rainy and dreary in New York today and this looks like quite the appetizing option for such weather.

Onepot October 28, 2009 at 10:51 pm

I am a huge fan of the Spice House and actually just used their magic powders the other days to make a lentil/cauliflower curry:

Nishta October 29, 2009 at 12:31 am

it’s the food of my people! or close :) so it’s not my mom’s chicken curry, so what? no doubt it tastes good, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what we should be interested in?

Hannah October 29, 2009 at 1:50 am

This is getting immediately added to my [growing] list of Blue Kitchen recipes to try. You said it perfectly, the yucky weather (which we have down in St. Louis, too) makes one crave full-bodied flavor.

The sleep-away camp I went to in Maine used to make a chicken curry dish and it look virtually identical to yours. It was my favorite dish the cooks served and I haven’t had chicken curry since (so sad!). Can’t wait to see how yours compares.

Terry B October 29, 2009 at 2:32 am

How funny, Dani! I’ve heard of New York and Chicago style pizza, but Chinese food?!?

Thanks, Jason! In looking at various recipes to come up with this dish, I was attracted to a number of rather involved recipes. One of these days, I will tackle something like that.

Awww, thanks, Ronnie Ann. And no.

Laura—You’re getting the weather we were having a couple of days ago. Still, I like the kind of foods cold weather inspires.

Onepot—Your lentil/cauliflower curry sounds delicious. And I smiled when I saw your photo of the Spice House spices in their very straightforward packaging.

Thanks, Nishta! I won’t tell your mom what you said.

Hannah—Yeah, I’ve spoken to friends in St. Louis recently who said the weather has turned ugly. I hope you enjoy the chicken curry, but I’m not overly hopeful—hardly anything lives up to childhood memories of food.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) October 29, 2009 at 3:57 am

I had the great pleasure of visiting The Spice House for the first time this past summer; I brought home several new-to-me spices and spice blends that have been inspiring my cooking. Are the recipes I’m creating authentic? Probably not. But they are delicious.

Toni October 29, 2009 at 6:13 am

Interesting, Terry. My experience of eating in India and eating in Indian restaurants in this country has taught me that I prefer the restaurants in this country. Maybe they all make “Indian-like” food, but it tastes much better than what I ate in India – even at very good restaurants in Delhi.

Which is a long winded way of saying that I love the sound of your Indian-like curry. Just my style!

Kate October 29, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Ah, my taste buds too have been spoiled by Chicago’s amazing food. Now that I live in the suburbs, I regularly crave great Indian, Ethiopian and Middle Eastern food. The Indian I’ve done OK with (thanks to a wonderful independent grocery store in Crystal Lake named Joseph’s Marketplace). For doro wat and the best falafel under the sun, I still have to bide my time until we head to Chicago’s Ras Dashen and Sultan’s Market (the Wicker Park location), respectively.

Terry B October 29, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Lydia—Whenever I’m in The Spice House for more than a few minutes, I can smell wonderful fragrances on my clothes for hours afterward. The people who work there—many of them culinary school students or graduates—must have it in their very pores.

Thanks, Toni! We have an Indian-born friend who is an amazing cook. Whenever she comes to Chicago, she insists on eating at Udupi Palace on Devon Avenue. It specializes in Southern Indian cuisine that she can’t duplicate in her own kitchen—especially those giant, delicious, tubular Masala Dosai.

Kate—I am so glad you commented here! Gave me a chance to find your very cool blog. I work about two blocks from Sultan’s Market, by the way. Not that I’m trying to make you jealous or anything.

Carolyn October 29, 2009 at 4:55 pm
Jessica October 30, 2009 at 12:51 am

This sounds really good! I just got some organic pepper and Himalayan sea salt from Sustainable Sourcing https://secure.sustainablesourcing.com and I think I’ll try them both out in this recipe. Thanks for sharing!

Kalyn October 30, 2009 at 5:15 pm

This sounds great to me, even if it’s not 100% authentically Indian. I love Penzeys and The Spice House; if I lived near one it would be seriously harmful to my budget!

Mimi October 30, 2009 at 11:57 pm

The real question is: Do you deliver to Northern Wisconsin? It’s only a few hours away.

I could use this dish just now. I have some sort of flu and I bet this would send it packing!

Terry B October 31, 2009 at 2:00 am

Fascinating, Carolyn! The article says that it’s the turmeric, a spice found in virtually every curry mix, that does it.

Thanks for the new resource, Jessica. To quote Dani from above, “One thing I love about the internet is being able to order practically any ingredient.”

Kalyn—Oh, I know. We really try to go to The Spice House only when we’re out of something and put on our blinders so we don’t overshop. But really, they sell small quantities at reasonable prices, so even if you go a little overboard, the price tag isn’t bad.

Thanks, Mimi. And as I told Ronnie Ann above, um, no. Feel better soon, my friend.

kitty October 31, 2009 at 2:56 am

hm…we will have to try this recipe!
Mark and I have been trying to cook Indian food forever and ever. It never tastes quite right. We’re convinced that there is a mass conspiracy going on where recipes are being kept private.

katie November 1, 2009 at 7:42 pm

Sometimes ‘like’ is the best we can do… But this looks wonderful. I used to love going out to eat in Chicago – it’s been ages….

Terry B November 1, 2009 at 9:16 pm

Kitty—I must warn you, if you’re looking for the taste of Indian restaurants [or even take-out places], this isn’t as big flavored as that. I may try to find a recipe that delivers that flavor at some point, but this was a nice, exotically comforting dish for a cold night.

Katie—I had no idea you’d been a Chicagoan once upon a time [or are you speaking of forays from Wisconsin?]. How did you get to small village France from here?

micook November 2, 2009 at 11:39 pm

Maybe it sounds strange, but I’m vegetarian but this recipe looked very good, so I decided to make it only with the vegetebles (I added more than in the recipe)
Also, I wanted to tell you that I have a new website:

I’ll be happy if you’ll take a look, thanks :)

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