A friend was over the other day and when I offered them some chicken curry (options: mild, spicy, and with added liver) to take home with her, she said that I should explain how I did that. As a busy parent, she said it’d be helpful to others with picky eaters at home, and of course, that makes sense, but some of this I do so automatically these days that I don’t even think about it.
But here’s the process. It looks long, because I explain in some detail, but it’s actually super-simple and quick to do:
NOTE: When I say ‘chili powder’ here, I mean Indian chili powder, which is powdered dried red chili pepper; it’s usually notably hotter than the cayenne you find in American grocery stores. But you can use cayenne. I don’t mean a ‘chili’ spice mix!
NOTE 2: I use boneless thighs for this, because the kids and Kevin eat with forks and so it’s not easy eating chicken on the bone. But if you’re going to all be eating with your hands (like me), cooking it on the bone is tastier. If you have time when making the first curry and want boneless pieces, you can buy chicken on the bone, cut the meat off, and then cook the bones in the curry with the meat pieces. Alternately, if you’re in a big hurry, you can use whole chicken thighs and not cut it up at all — you can even dump frozen chicken pieces in; you just have to simmer a bit longer. I only do that when I’m truly exhausted, but sometimes needs must.
1) MILD CURRY (make as usual):
The kids don’t like chicken curry as spicy as Kevin and I like it. They’re finally at a point (ages 12 and almost-10) where they can handle black pepper, and Kavi likes a little chili, but Anand doesn’t want any. So the first step is to make a mild curry. You could do this with no pepper or chili at all, but for Kavi, I put in about a 1/2 t. of chili powder to the pot.
Then, when I serve the kids, I actually rinse off Anand’s chicken pieces. It makes me a little sad, losing that yummy sauce, but this way he eats it. And that’s actually what Amma recommended, for getting kids used to eating spicy food, what they did in Sri Lanka with toddlers — make it per usual, rinse off most of the sauce, give it to them, so they get a little bit of it. I wish I’d listened to my mom and done that with the kids when they were toddlers — maybe we’d be further along in this process now! Oh well.
I set half the curry aside in a Pyrex for dinner that night, and for their leftover meals the next days.
2) SPICY CURRY (add chili oil):
It’s time to get spicy! In a separate frying pan, I heat up a little oil or ghee, then add 1-2 t. chili powder and sauté for just a minute, until it darkens slightly. I stir that chili oil into the half-pot of chicken curry on the stove, and simmer for oh, about ten minutes, until well-blended. If you have enough liquid, it won’t hurt to simmer longer; if you’re getting low on liquid, add water. (You could add milk or coconut milk, but that would make it milder, which isn’t what you’re looking for…)
Now it’s at Kevin and my heat levels. Usually I’d just stop there, but sometimes, I want one more variation. If so, I portion out some of the spicy chicken into a separate Pyrex for Kev’s dinner and leftovers.
3) CHICKEN CURRY WITH LIVER (add sauteéd liver):
I usually make this when I’m feeling a little under the weather, and I want some extra iron and vitamins. Or when I’m feeling indulgent, because I *love* liver curry. In the same frying pan that I cooked the chili powder, I add some chicken liver and fry it for a few minutes (there’s usually enough oil left in the pan, but you could add more, if not). Brown it a little to bring out the flavor, and then just add it to the remaining chicken curry in the pot, and simmer another 10 minutes or so. If you cook it on high, or cook a long time, the liver will break down, making a very thick, rich, liver-y sauce. Usually I only want it to break down a bit, though, as I like eating the liver pieces, and I like the curry sauce closer to the original. Serve hot with rice or bread.
All this usually makes us dinners for three nights (we all eat leftovers, thankfully), so it’s not too bad to do on a weeknight. If you wanted to save more time on a busy workday when you’re getting home around dinnertime, you could do the chicken curry in a slow cooker or Instant Pot (10 minutes of sautéing onions to start, then cook long and slow) in the morning, and then just do the ‘add chili powder’ and/or ‘add liver’ steps later in the day. Having batches of cooked seasoned onions on hand (can be kept in freezer) also speeds up the process dramatically.
Chicken Curry / Kozhi Kari
(1 hour, serves 6)
This is the classic Sri Lankan chicken dish; if you were just going to make one, this should be the one. A key to a good chicken curry is having a tasty kulambu (or kuzhambu, depending on how you do the transliteration), which is basically the curry sauce or gravy. Some people make it more liquid, some more thick (if you use potatoes in this dish, they will thicken the sauce). In this recipe you build a fairly spicy sauce, and then add whole milk partway through the cooking process, which melds the flavors and mellows the spice level, lending your curry a creamy richness.
You can use other kinds of milk if you’d prefer, and in fact, coconut milk is often used in Sri Lanka, but coconut milk is a little rich for everyday cooking—my family tends to save it for special occasion meals. I’ve used goat milk (works fine) and soy milk (a little thin, but acceptable). Almond milk is quite thin, and has a distinct nutty flavor—it’s not bad, but it does take the curry in a different direction; if you can find cashew milk, that might be a better option.
Note: If you’re using coconut milk, which is fairly sweet, you may want to switch out the ketchup for chopped fresh tomatoes + a little vinegar. My mother started using ketchup (which has sugar in it already) to compensate for the lack of sweetness in cow’s milk, when she first came to America as an immigrant in 1973, and coconuts and coconut milk were not so easy to come by.
3-5 medium onions, diced
3 TBL vegetable oil
1 tsp black mustard seed
1 tsp cumin seed
3 whole cloves
3 whole cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick, broken into 3 pieces
1-2 TBL cayenne
1 TBL Sri Lankan curry powder
12 pieces chicken, about 2 1/2 lbs, skinned and trimmed of fat
Note: Use legs and thighs—debone if you must, but they’ll be tastier cooked on the bone. Don’t use breast meat—it’s not nearly as tasty. (Alternately, use 6 pieces of chicken and 3 russet potatoes, peeled and cubed) If you crack the bones (using the back of a heavy knife), it will allow the marrow to add rich flavor to the dish.
1/3 cup ketchup
1 heaping tsp salt
1/2 cup milk
1 TBL lime juice
1. In a large pot, sauté onions in oil on medium-high with mustard seed and cumin seed, cloves, cardamom pods, and cinnamon pieces, until onions are golden/translucent (not brown). Add cayenne and cook one minute. Immediately add curry powder, chicken, ketchup, and salt.
2. Lower heat to medium. Cover and cook, stirring periodically, until chicken is cooked through and sauce is thick, about 20 minutes. Add water if necessary to avoid scorching. Add potatoes if using, and add milk, to thicken and mellow spice level; stir until well blended.
3. Cook 20 more minutes, until potatoes are cooked through. Stir in lime juice; serve hot.