A few weeks ago, I found myself on the phone, frantically shuttling between calls to my aunt and my grandmother, trying to jolt their memories and nail down the ingredients we needed for my Singapore family’s take on chicken curry. As the calls got more confusing and the ingredient list grew more nebulous, my friend Basil, a Singaporean of Indian ethnicity, sat nearby, listening in with an increasingly incredulous look. “You’re sitting next to an Indian,” he finally said, “and you’re not asking him how he makes his curry?”A very good point. It turns out Basil, better known to his friends as the hard-to-miss, gregarious guy at any bar that he frequents, also knows how to cook. He learned 20 years ago in his grandmother’s kitchen, when he was drafted as a teenager to help her after she’d lost a leg to diabetes. The recipe begins as many other curry recipes do — with loads of garlic, ginger and shallots.
Basil’s flexible on how finely to chop up the garlic, ginger and shallots, but I prefer my curry gravy less chunky. It basically involves heating up oil, frying up mustard seeds until they pop, and adding some of the garlic, ginger and shallots. Then, to use Basil’s words, “you just dump everything in” and cook for 45 minutes. The final result was delicious – C. Tan
Basil’s Grandmother’s Chicken Curry
1 whole chicken, cut up into parts
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1.5 tablespoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoon cumin
1 or 2 whole star anise (optional)
10 dried chili peppers
3 inches of ginger, peeled
20 cloves of garlic
1.5 heaping tablespoons mustard seeds
2 stalks of curry leaves
2 tablespoons corn or vegetable oil
Salt, to taste
Chop up the garlic, shallots and ginger. (You can use a food processor if you’d like a less chunky gravy.) Set a small portion of this mixture aside. Then mix up the rest with the chili powder, fennel seeds, coriander, turmeric, cumin and set that aside for 15 minutes.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a wok over medium to high heat until the oil is very hot. Add the mustard seeds and fry until the mustard seeds start to pop and split open. Add the small portion of garlic, ginger and shallots that you’d set aside and fry that a little, until fragrant, then add in the rest of the ingredients (the spice mixture, chicken, star anise, dried chili peppers, salt and curry leaves).
Cook for 45 minutes over medium heat, or until chicken is cooked through, stirring occasionally. If you’d like a gravy, cover the wok while cooking. If you’d prefer a dry curry, don’t cover it. Serve with rice.
The melange of spices is complex — and without the sweetness of the coconut milk, the taste of this chicken has a deep and slightly smoky quality to it. It’s a taste that will linger and intensify over days. (You might want to make this a day ahead.) Having found a recipe that’s a keeper, I’m of course greedy for more. Also on Basil’s grandmother’s lesson plan was a recipe for spicy Goan pork curry that he says is to die for. If we’re all lucky, maybe he’ll share it.