Chicken curry is the foundation of adult life

When I left home, my mum wrote out this recipe for me. I’ve long since lost the original, but have cooked it so many times that I can write it down from memory. It is, give or take a little, a South Indian-style chicken curry*, and it’s what we made for any vaguely celebratory meal, along with an array of accompaniments of varying plainness or grandeur, depending on the occasion.


  • 1 large chicken, cut into at least 12 pieces
  • 1 large onion or a biggish handful of small red onions
  • 4-6 garlic cloves
  • An inch of fresh ginger root
  • 2 tsp mustard seed
  • 1 tsp cumin seed
  • Red chillies – we used to pound a couple of fresh ones in a stone mortar, but you could crumble a couple of whole dried ones into the mix instead. Use the long red ones, NOT those tiny Thai chillies. They’re way hot.
  • 3-4 tbsp good curry powder for meat – I use Baba’s or Alagappa’s, which I buy on trips back to Malaysia. Make this into a paste with a little water
  • Whole spices – a cinnamon stick, 6-8 cloves, 2-3 star anise
  • Coconut milk – I often use the canned sort, but much prefer when I can get it fresh. To do this you have to buy freshly grated coconut from a market. (Dessicated coconut won’t do it. Perish the thought.) Take it home, pour a little warm water on it, put it in a sieve and squeeze out as much of the “milk” as you can. At school we were always taught to do this twice, and to use the second, more watery product first, adding the first, really creamy product at the end. But, I never bother.
  • Three or four potatoes, cut into big pieces
  • Three large tomatoes or more small ones, halved or quartered
  • One whole stalk of curry leaves. I don’t know the proper botanical name for these. Like many others, we grew our own and I’ve never seen them outside Malaysia.

OK. Here’s how to cook it.

Chop your onions, garlic and ginger very fine, or pound it in a stone mortar (which of course is the proper way). Fry up till a little soft. Whack your mustard seed into the hot onions and wait till they sizzle and pop. Add the cumin seed. Fry till they smell good – not long.

Now the curry paste. Sizzle it all around the pan. Now the chicken pieces, trying to ensure they get a good coating of curry paste. Actually another way to do this is to marinate the chicken in the curry paste beforehand, if you are that organised.

Add water to cover the chicken. When it boils add your potatoes. Later add the tomatoes. When the potatoes are cooked, add the coconut milk. Leave it on low heat till it the gravy thickens but is still liquid enough to ladle out onto waiting mounds of rice.

About the coconut milk – the amount you use depends on how rich you want the dish. These days, from health considerations, I often use one of those tiny cans and then add a similar amount of unsweetened yogurt.

* I call this South Indian-style, rather than South Indian, for a reason. My mother is Chinese, and she learned her South Indian cuisine from her sisters-in-law. And then (of course) I learned it from her. It seems authentic to me, but what do I know. This is authentically how it’s eaten in our home, anyway.


One response

  1. My lovely cousin Maria left a comment on Facebook about this post.
    Maria wrote: “I enjoyed reading The Kitchen Traveller, with several chuckles and even a guffaw or two thrown in (on my part, not yours…no, you were just being your usual under-stated humourous self)! By the way, in my house, when cooking authentic chicken curry, we put in the cumin first, (or is it fennel? the larger ones anyway) followed by other spices, curry leaves and 2 dried chillies (each chilli broken into 3 or 4), and then the onions-garlic-ginger (I’ve nick-named them “tiga sekawan”), and then the curry powder paste. Also add in a green chilli (cut into four) when you put in the tomatoes. A squeeze of lime just before turning off the stove. Maybe you can try this variation next time and see if you like it. :)”

    Interesting – I always do it the other way around, without really knowing why. “Authenticity” may stem from pure chance, of just happening to be the way one does it the first time.

    She then added:
    “I’ve just checked one of the cookery books – cumin is the small one (natcheeram). We use it for or rassam, and sambar. For fish, chicken and meat curry, we always use the larger one, fennel (perencheeram). I suppose it doesn’t really matter, we could use cumin for the curries too – but cumin has a stronger flavour, and fennel is “sweeter” and is often chewed straight as a breath freshener. ….Somehow all my curries have fresh green chillies. Red chillies are ground and/or pounded and used for sambals, or sliced for kichap dishes to add colour. I sometimes add sliced red chillies to mixed vegetable dishes – also to add colour. :)”

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