In February this year, we made our very first trip to Tamil Nadu. We were mainly in Karaikudi, an area known as the land of the Chettiars – Chettinad. Chettiars are a mercantile community who made their wealth overseas in the early to mid-twentieth century and returned to their ancestral homeland to build palatial homes. We stayed in a former gentlemen’s club which had been converted into a heritage boutique hotel – The Bangala. During our stay, we were treated to the finest south indian hospitality, including sumptuous and utterly delicious Tamilian food. I purchased a copy of the cookbook which is a compilation of all the recipes of dishes they cook at the Bangala.
One of the recipes that caught my eye upon our return home was the Tomato Chicken Masala as unlike many traditional south indian dishes, it uses very few ingredients and it sounded like it tasted very similar to the Ayam Masak Merah dish I grew up eating from the Malaysian-style Nasi Padang stalls. It got me wondering if Ayam Masak Merah is actually an adaptation of a home-style indian dish or if this Tomato Chicken Masala is in fact a dish brought over by the Chettiars from their travels to Southeast Asia. However, I’m doubtful if its origin is as important as how scrumptious it is, given that it’s fast approaching the dinner hour now. So, let’s tuck in!
About the dish and its ingredients:
This a very simple, home-style chicken masala that can be whipped up under the hour and still deliver massive flavour. Why? The natural sweet tartness and umami from the tomatoes compliment the smokey heat from the chilli powder and the subtle hint of earthy spices from the cinnamon and green cardamom lingers in the background long enough to coax another spoonful. Some days, like these past few rainy ones, just call for simple, rustic and comforting chicken masala and a big chunk of cake, right? I love the addition of a fresh squeeze of lime because it brightens the dish and rounds up the dish. While I was cooking the dish, I didn’t think it would be very tasty but when I tasted it right at the end, I was blown away by how delicious it is. I think this would satisfy most children and fussy eaters (because every family has one of those!) as it isn’t too spicy and strongly flavoured but still very tasty.
The sauce is what makes this Tomato Chicken Masala so memorable! Luscious , thick enough to coat your spoon or your right palm and, by default, it’s perfectly acceptable to lick every tasty morsel! In fact, forget about that tender chicken and just dive straight into that pool of gravy. What an absolute delight!
For a successful result, use really ripe, low-acid tomatoes like the kind found in our local markets. They should be very red and smell amazing when you sniff at where the stalks were. In Singapore, I prefer to buy all my tomatoes from the wet market as I find supermarket tomatoes rather tasteless and mealy. Also, as a general rule of thumb, extra large tomatoes don’t really taste best.
About my favourite cookware to make masalas and curries – my Le Creuset 26-cm Marmite Pot :
To make good masalas, one needs a thick pot that is curved and has high sides. Yes, you can make masala in any cookware but the thickness and material of the pot ensure that food cooks evenly. This results in the browning of the meats and the masala paste which intensifies the flavours. In most curries and masalas, the browning also helps the layers of flavours from adding ingredients at different stages meld together. The black enamel coating inside the Marmite helps with the browning process with lesser oil.
Tomato Chicken Masala (Thakkali Masala Kozhi)
Recipe by: Vasun, www.cupcakesncurries.com
Adapted from: The Bangala Table – Flavours and Recipes from Chettinad by Sumeet Nair, Meenakshi Meyyappan with Jill Donenfeld
- 800 grams – 1 kilogram / 2 pound medium-sized chicken pieces
- 1/2 teaspoons each of turmeric powder, chilli powder and sea salt
- 1/3 cup cooking oil
- 4 inch piece ceylon cinnamon / 2 inch piece cassia bark
- 6 green cardamoms
- 1 green chilli, slit horizontally
- 2 medium red onions (about 150-170 grams), peeled and sliced thickly
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 3-4 teaspoons of chilli powder
- 2-3 teaspoons minced garlic
- 2-3 teaspoons minced ginger
- 2 cups puréed low-acid tomatoes (about 3-4 medium-large tomatoes)
- 1/2 cup water
- sea salt, to taste
- fresh lime/lemon juice
- Throughly wash and dry chicken pieces. This helps the chicken to take on colour and Then, marinate them with 1/2 teaspoons each of turmeric powder, chilli powder and sea salt. Set aside while you make the masala.
- Pour oil into a Le Creuset Marmite pot or a medium wok over medium heat. When the oil is starting to smoke, add the whole cinnamon and cardamom and fry until cardamoms have plumped up.
- Immediately add slit green chilli, sliced onions and a pinch of salt. Stir constantly and fry till onions are translucent and just starting to brown on the edges.
- Add remaining turmeric and chill powders, minced garlic and ginger and continue to stir and cook for about 30 seconds. Don’t let the minced garlic and spice powders burn.
- Add puréed tomato, a tiny pinch of salt and cook stirring to throughly mix the spices and purée. Cook until the oil separates, the mixture has darkened slightly and reduced a little.
- Increase heat to medium-high and add marinated chicken pieces. Toss to coat the masala and to brown the chicken a little.
- Add just 1/2 cup water, reduce heat to the lowest, cover the pot and cook until chicken is tender, about 20-30 minutes.
- After chicken pieces are thoroughly cooked, add just 1/2 cup more water if you’d prefer a thinner gravy and cook for just another 1-2 minutes. If you prefer a thicker clingy masala sauce like I do, remove chicken pieces, increase heat to medium-high and continuously stir the sauce till it reaches your desired consistency. Add cooked chicken back into to the pot and gently stir to coat with sauce. Check for seasoning and add more salt if needed.
- Just before serving, add a squeeze of fresh lime juice and coriander leaves. Goes perfectly with plain rice.