“Chettinad, a region in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu, is known not only for its fiery foods showered with black peppercorns, red chiles, tamarind and coconut, but also for its inhabitants, the Tamil-speaking, industrious Chettiars, bankers and businessmen who migrated en masse to Ceylon and Burma during the 19th and 20th centuries. This is a classic curry of the Chettinad community but is not as fiery as some of their varuvals (chips) that contain chicken, fish and even vegetables. Savor this curry over a mound of boiled white rice to absorb some of its heat.” – Raghavan Iyer
- 2 tablespoons yellow split peas (chana dal), picked over for stones
- 1/2 cup plain yogurt (preferably full fat)
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 6 medium-size garlic cloves
- 6 green or white cardamom pods
- 3 to 5 dried red Thai or cayenne chiles, stems removed
- 1 cinnamon stick (3 inches), broken into smaller pieces
- 3 1/2 pound broiler-fryer chicken, skin removed and cut into 8 pieces
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seed
- 1 small red onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
- 12 to 15 medium to large fresh curry (karhi) leaves
- 2 fresh green Thai, cayenne or serrano chiles, halved lengthwise with stems removed (do not remove seeds)
- 1 teaspoon tamarind paste or concentrate
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup freshly shredded coconut or 1/4 cup dried unsweetened shreds reconstituted in 1/4 cup boiling water for about 15 minutes, and excess liquid drained before use
Preheat a small skillet over medium-high heat. Toast the yellow split peas by constantly stirring them or shaking the skillet every few seconds to move the peas around, until they are reddish-brown in patches and smell nutty, 2 to 3 minutes. They will not be evenly brown since there is no oil to coat them and provide a uniform heating surface. Transfer the peas to a blender jar. Add the yogurt, peppercorns, salt, turmeric, garlic, cardamom, red chiles and cinnamon. Puree, scraping the insides of the jar as needed, to make a sun-yellow marinade, mottled with black- and red-speckled spices. Scrape the robust-tasting marinade over the chicken and make sure you completely coat the meat. Refrigerate, covered, to allow the spices to permeate the meat, at least 1 hour or even overnight.
Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seed. Cover the pan and wait until all the seeds have stopped popping (not unlike popcorn), about 30 seconds. Lower the heat to medium and stir-fry the onion, curry leaves and chiles until the onion is light purple-brown around the edges, 6 to 10 minutes.
Add the chicken pieces, marinade and all, and sear each side until the meat turns light brown, 8 to 10 minutes each side.
While the meat sears, whisk together the tamarind and water to dissolve the acidic paste. Once the chicken browns, pour the murky brown water over the chicken and allow it to pool around the meat. Flip the chicken, meat-side down, and simmer, covered, basting the pieces occasionally with the thin curry, until the thickest parts of the chicken pieces, when pierced, are no longer pink and their juices run clear, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the pieces and lay them on a serving platter.
Crank up the heat to medium-high and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally to thicken the sauce. Stir in the coconut and pour the sauce over the chicken.