There are days (and nights...time is a construct now, isn't it?) when curry trumps other dish I'm craving for. Sure, I can order in, but it feels like cheating when I do that. Cooking and baking for me, is really all about continuous learning, remembering previously tasted flavours; testing how spices and aromatics blend together, how heat is applied -- gentle to coax out piquancy, or intense to bring a glorious robustness; reading to hone my tastebud and test out new recipes and ingredients.
This food blogging project has become all the more consequential for me, in light of a recent drama between two food lifestyle personalities, one more popular than the other (just Google Chrissy Teigen and Alison Roman). It reminded me how all cooking and baking starts with an appreciation for culinary traditions, good eating and travel. Yes, travel; after all, it was the great human migration of centuries and continuing (or is it more correct to say halted?) immigrations that introduced spices and new cuisines to new lands, and allowing cultures to borrow ingredients from one another, adopt and adapt cooking techniques, and expand awareness and openness to expand the palate.
I don't want to get into the specifics of the feud, nor plunge into the race card that seems to be wielded by media narratives these days, because this is not an opinion piece on who or what is right or wrong. To paraphrase my eloquent friend Tracy, awareness and appreciation are the order of the day; acknowledging where the inspirations of what you cook or bake come from ultimately make you a more confident cook or baker. The same goes for anything you do in life, that you do with passion and commitment.
This chicken curry is an amalgamation of South and South East Asian flavours. There were quite a few spices I wanted to work with for the curry, but eventually trimmed down to five: turmeric, ginger, coriander, cumin and white pepper. Less is always more (wink, wink).
Coconut milk serves as a base that binds the nuanced spices together. There was no need for oil of any kind; the coconut milk did all the cooking. With a rich ingredient like this, slow cooking is the way to go, so give yourself time to marinate, to observe, to stew, to taste. We have all the time in the world at the moment.
A tip on the chicken -- or pork, beef or even fish, if you wish to substitute the fowl -- salt all sides the night before, or at least 12 hours before cooking, then put the covered container inside the refrigerator to marinate. Use less salt if you intend to substitute chicken with fish. The salt should draw out the moisture from the chicken breasts, which, when not marinated or cooked too long, can get notoriously dry.
Some scrounging in the chiller produced a pack of peas, a capsicum, a can of button mushrooms, a bunch of basil, an almost shrivelled-up head of butter lettuce and flat-leaf parsley. Use these or whatever you have that has a similar crunch (capsicum and mushrooms, even kale), a bit of chew (peas), herbaceous aroma (basil) and just added texture overall. To balance the thick spiciness, squeeze calamansi juice in the mixture; keep tasting to adjust accordingly.
The curry goes well with steamed rice or adlai, also known as Philippine barley or Job's Tears, to soak all that delicious, aromatic sauce.
Cooking time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
4 chicken breasts, cut into small strips, around 1-2 inches
400 ml or 1 can of coconut milk
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon white pepper powder
1 inch ginger root, grated
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice or the juice from 6 calamansi fruits
2 fresh birds-eye chilli or cayenne chilli
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 teaspoon brown sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup green peas
1/2 medium green bell pepper, cubed
1/2 cup button mushrooms
1 cup basil, kale or butter lettuce or mixed, roughly chopped; set aside 1/4 cup basil for curry paste
1 stalk of lemongrass, use only the root to about 3 inch stem, split
1 sprig parsley or cilantro, for garnish
1. Pre-season chicken breast the night prior to cooking with salt. Leave in the refrigerator to thaw. Once ready, take it out and chop into thin strips. Meanwhile, heat 200 ml coconut milk in a balti or large saucepan over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes, or until it thickens and coconut oil starts to separate from the milk.
First 5 minutes... stir the milk occasionally
After about 15 minutes or more, the coconut milk should thicken and start drawing out oil. Keep cooking it until you see a thin film of oil on the surface.
2. Add curry powder, cumin, white pepper, lime juice and zest, garlic, chili, salt and 1/4 cup of basil. Stir altogether, until mixture has reduced and turned to paste, around another 15 minutes.
3. Add split stalk of lemongrass for fragrance. After a minute or two, add chicken, making sure to coat the chicken with the curry paste. Cook chicken in curry sauce for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Coat chicken in curry sauce and let it cook
4.Add remaining coconut milk, as well as sugar, soy sauce and vinegar. Bring to a simmer for 15 minutes. Add in bell peppers halfway through to soften them.
5. Toss in peas, mushrooms and the rest of the basil and lettuce. Stir occasionally for 5 minutes.
6. Turn off heat. Serve over steamed rice. Top with parsley or cilantro.
You can keep the remaining mixture in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days. To reheat, just transfer to a microwave-safe bowl and heat for 2 minutes on high.