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A Year in Chicken Soup - Bengali Chicken Curry
Eid Mubarak! As I type, the smell of toasted spices and marinated meat sinews through the window, open to the cold air just a fraction of a gap. Below, small groups gather excitedly on doorsteps before disappearing within, behind warm lit windows that glow enticingly in the darkness.
Our borough has the fifth largest Muslim population in England. It's one of the things I love most about it. Because right now, Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Adha, a public holiday that starts with morning prayers and culminates in visits to family and friends to exchange food and gifts.
Step outside into the cold evening during Eid, and you are transported instantly from the damp and the drizzle of the London suburbs to somewhere more colourful, more scent-filled, more alive with community.
Since I'm not a Muslim, though, I'm always left on the doorstep, looking wistfully in. The Christian calendar used to be dotted with feasts, regular fixtures when we paused to celebrate community and family through food: the feast of the Epiphany fell on January 6th, the feasting before Lent was so thorough it was named ‘fat Tuesday’... every single Sunday, in fact, we gathered as a family to eat.
Sure, it was usually a chicken roasted out of any semblance of edibility and bathed in bisto, but it brought us together. Now, the only feast we observe is Christmas, and we typically start snoring into our paper crowns midway through that one. Easter feasts have been replaced by chocolate binges (hoarded jealously, never shared) and Sundays are more commonly spent in communion with screens. I watch my neighbours disappear into each others houses, laden with pyrex and tuppaware pots and I feel a pang of envy and of regret.
In an attempt to look through the front door in a metaphorical sense (and one that doesn’t involve breaking and entering), I asked a Bengali friend if she had a recipe I could cook – one that might tick both the Eid and ‘chicken soup project’ boxes.
“Bengalis don’t really do ‘soup’,” she wrote back. “But I can give you our version – my mum’s recipe for chicken curry. It’s a classic comfort food - I think if you were to go round a Bengali’s house you would, guaranteed, find chicken curry because it's just something that's always at home. And the base is remarkably similar.”
Online, you’ll find countless emotional eulogies to Robibarer Murgir Jhol (or ‘Sunday chicken curry’) from Bengalis living abroad. One says that it makes them homesick (http://www.ecurry.com/blog/indian/curries/gravies/robibar-er-murgi-r-jhol-sunday-afternoon-chicken-curry/), another that the recipe recalls her Mother: “While she peeled the potatoes and chopped the onions her bangles would make a soft tling tling sound." (http://www.ahomemakersdiary.com/2010/09/robibarer-mangshor-jhol-sunday-special.html)
At Eid, as opposed to routine Sundays, chicken curry would feature in the background to other, flashier dishes. “It’s something everyone would go for at a feast,” says Jaheeda, “But it’s not one of the special dishes. Bengalis tend to eat fish or chicken so red meat is a rarity for when guests come round or Eid, because so much meat is sacrificed.”
According to the International Business Times, nearly 10 million animals are slaughtered in Pakistan alone, to commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael to God. If I’m going to find Eid action anywhere, it will be at my local halal butcher.
Out on our local high street, I join a small crowd of other women queuing for meat. Cooking it, I know that women (and the occasional man) up and down our street are doing the same. I’ve decided to make my Bengali chicken curry for two new friends who are travelling to the region next month. They arrive on my doorstep, along with the other guests, just as my neighbours are coming out onto the street and into other houses. The scents from our house mingle from those around us. I feel, momentarily, as if I’ve had a peek through the front door. Then, of course, it slams shut.My guests tell us they have handed in their notice at work, given up their flat and bought one-way tickets to Delhi. From there, they will travel. Maybe to Bangladesh, maybe to Nepal or Pakistan...We tuck into the curry (which is delicious, poles apart in depth of flavour, scent and texture from anything emanating from a supermarket or takeaway) and talk about the comfort foods they will miss: beans on toast, salt and vinegar crisps. I remember a trip to Kathmandu, where the British Embassy would serve tea and scones on bone china to homesick guests.And that, of course, is the problem. For me, robibarer murgir jhol will always smell of adventure. It will always beckon me out to a wider world, one of tantalising and intangible possibility. To Jaheeda, and to my neighbours, still drifting into the late night pavements as I type, it will always point in the opposite direction: home.
Jaheeda's mum’s Bengali chicken curry
Jaheeda says: “You might have to bear with me with quantities as I am making them up, we don't really do recipes in our culture, it's all by eye.”
Between 750g - 1kg chicken (mix of breast, leg, whatever you want) - if you can get it, halal is better
3 tablespoons of crushed garlic
3 tablespoons of crushed ginger
3 table spoons of oil (of your choice)
4 tablespoons of salt may need to add more if not salty enough!
2 sticks of cinnamon
8-10 cardamom pods
3 bay leaves
1/2 table spoon of tumeric
1/2 table spoon of ground coriander powder
1 table spoon ground cumin powder
2 tablespoons of mixed curry powder to suit your taste or 1 tablespoon of chilli powder
2 tomatoes (optional)
Handful bunch of coriander
Have a kettle full of boiling water ready
*You can add veg if you like, we like it with potato, broccoli, cauliflower or even butter nut squash goes really well but if you do, add this after the chicken has marinated in the sauce.
1. Oil in pan, heat on medium till hot
2. Add garlic and ginger and wait for it to just go brown and then add onions
3. Add cinnamons, cardamoms, bay leaves
4. Add salt, stir and cover, leaving on medium heat
5. Cut and wash chicken to about an inch cube if using breast and leave legs etc as they are. drain chicken
6. When onions have softened mash any big bits with a potato masher to leave a smooth paste
7. Add all the spices and if using tomatoes - add the tomatoes. Add a tablespoon of boiling water. Cover and leave for 5 mins on a medium to semi high heat (careful the bottom doesn't catch because it might do at this point - so keep stirring occasionally so this doesn't happen)
8. Shove the chicken in, whack to high heat and cover for 10 mins.
9. If you're going to add veg - prepare it now. Otherwise read a book!
10. The chicken will start to release water.
11. After the 10 mins on high heat, if you want to add veg do it now.
12. If you see that it's looking a little dry add water from the kettle - half a mug should enrich the curry sauce. Leave on a high heat still.
13. Once you start to see that the chicken looks cooked, lower the heat to medium and keep it covered. Let it simmer until the colour becomes a golden brown and the chicken no longer looks white but starts to take on the colour of the curry around it (about 15-20 mins) if it's dried out, add more water and continue to simmer.
14. Finish off with fresh coriander. Stir it into the curry. You can top with more to garnish if you like.
Here is the recipe as a PDF.
Join us in the next article to test a new chicken soup. Get in touch with suggestions of all sorts via Twitter: @hattiegarlick
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