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Chettinad cuisine comes from a region in the southern tip of India known as Tamil Nadu. This area traded mightily with Southeast Asia, producing rich dishes that are heavily flavored with a multitude of spices traditional in both Indian and Asian cooking, such as black pepper, garlic, chili, curry, cumin, star anise, and cinnamon. Chettinad cooking is also known to be extremely hot. I was in the mood for a sweaty, burn-your-mouth-out kind of a dish (I've got a masochistic streak when it comes to food). This dish promised to fulfill.
As with most curry recipes that I research before cooking for the first time, I'm surprised by the lack of specificity when it comes to the spices. There may be a general consensus to the outcome of the dish, but often both the ingredients and individual spices vary quite a bit. This isn't much help when trying to cook up an authentic version. I pulled together an ingredient list from three recipes, and set off. (A few recipes called for poppy seeds, but alas, poppy seeds are a prohibited substance in Singapore...hmmm.)
Thankfully, the one consistent thing (ouside of lots of hot chilies) seemed to be the sauce. Whew. Chicken Chettinad is based on a thickly cooked combo of onion and tomato. To flavor the boneless chunks of chicken breasts before cooking, I dunked them in a marinade of yogurt and tumeric while I toasted up the masala (mixture of spices) and simmered the curry gravy. The order of ingredients can get a bit confusing here, as some of the spices are cooked and ground into a paste, while others get tossed right into the pot. This is just the way it goes with many curries. If you think about it though, it does make sense—you wouldn't want to grind up a whole cardamom pod or a bay leaf, for instance.
The real trick to this dish is to make sure that the onions and tomatoes are cooked down and concentrated so as to evaporate much of the extra liquid. Once the chicken is tossed in, it releases moisture into the curry, diluting the curry's flavor. I made the mistake of not reducing the first time, and I had to resort to pulling out the cooked chicken pieces and reducing the sauce after the fact in order to boost the flavor.
Dried chilies can vary in intensity, so I kept a portion of it out of the paste in order to have full control over the heat. I wound up adding a bunch of 'em (12 total), but for those less inclined to punishing themselves, it may be less.
The final curry is a cacophony of flavor. Tender chunks of chicken in a hot chili sauce that's balanced by the sweetness of onion, tomato, cinnamon, and cardamom. For acidity, add a bit of tamarind or a few squeezes of lime. Serve with rice and a traditional veggie such as cumin-flavored bhindi (okra). Chicken Chettinad is the perfect hot blooded antidote to a cold night.
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About the author: Yvonne Ruperti is a food writer, recipe developer, former bakery owner, and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide To Easy Artisan Bread. You can also watch her culinary stylings on the America's Test Kitchen television show. She presently lives in Singapore as a freelance writer for Time Out Singapore. Check out her blog: shophousecook.com. Follow Yvonne on Twitter.