Tart Chicken with Roasted Chiles, Tamarind and Coconut Milk (Puli Kozhi)
The Moppalahs, inhabitants of the southwestern state of Kerala who follow the doctrines of the Islamic faith, consume chicken, mutton, fish and other seafood as part of their special-occasion meals. This curry combines roasted and ground spices — a typically southern Indian technique — with coconut milk, the other Keralite staple, to provide the base for plump chicken.
4 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon yellow split peas (chana dal), picked over for stones
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
2 dried red Thai or cayenne chiles, stems removed
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
2 teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
3 lengthwise slices fresh ginger (each 2 1/2 inches long, 1 inch wide and 1/8 inch thick)
4 large cloves garlic
1 chicken (3 1/2 pounds), skin removed, cut into 8 pieces
1 medium-size red onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon tamarind paste or concentrate
12 to 15 medium-size to large fresh curry leaves
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the split peas, coriander seeds and chiles, and roast the blend, stirring constantly, until the split peas and coriander are reddish brown and the chiles have blackened slightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and use a slotted spoon to skim off the spice blend and transfer it to a blender jar. Set the pan aside.
2. Add 1/2 cup of the coconut milk to the blender jar, along with the salt, ginger and garlic. Puree, scraping the inside of the jar as needed, to form a smooth, creamy yellow, red-speckled paste.
3. Transfer the nutty-smelling marinade to a medium-size bowl. Add the chicken pieces and thoroughly coat them with the marinade. Refrigerate, covered, for at least 30 minutes or as long as overnight, to allow the flavors to liven up the chicken.
4. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the skillet containing the residual spiced oil, and heat it over medium-high heat. Add the onion and stir-fry until its edges are light brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the chicken pieces in a single layer, saving the residual marinade. Lower the heat to medium, and cook until the chicken is browned on the underside, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn the pieces over and brown on the other side, 3 to 4 minutes.
5. Pour the reserved marinade into the skillet and add the remaining 1/2 cup coconut milk and the tamarind paste. Stir, making sure the tamarind is thoroughly mixed in with the liquid. Lift the chicken pieces to ensure that the sauce runs underneath. Scrape the bottom to deglaze the pan, releasing all the cooked-on chicken bits, spices and onion. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the skillet, and braise the chicken, basting it occasionally and turning the pieces every few minutes, until the meat in the thickest parts is no longer pink inside and the juices run clear, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the chicken and arrange it on a serving platter.
6. Stir the curry leaves and cilantro into the sauce and raise the heat to medium. Simmer vigorously, uncovered, stirring occasionally until the curry is gravy-thick, 5 to 8 minutes.
7. Pour the sauce over the chicken, and serve.