Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A good coconut curry

I am half Manglorean and half Hindu Goan - you could say I am a Mango. Both communities use a lot of coconut in their food. Coconut based curries either - with ground coconut or coconut milk with lashings of Tamarind as a souring agent, vegetables with grated coconut as a garnish, coconut based chutneys, and, tempering of dishes with coconut oil, all formed part of the food I ate when growing up. As a child I remember servants grating coconut on that unique coconut scraper squatting on the floor. I also remember, quite distinctly, being allowed to fill a blender with the scraped coconut, adding water, blending, and then with my small hands squeezing out the milk. A lot of the food from the Manglorean side used coconut oil as a cooking medium. I have no problem with that. In fact to this day we use coconut oil at home for several dishes. Obviously eating Thai food with its coconut milk based soups and curries are no problem for me. I do like coconut, though, I must confess, I am not too fond of coconut sweets or the horrid coconut desserts that the Thais love.

As a youngster, either the servants or my mother, or a selection of aunts, used to make rather delicious coconut curries. The curry was a base in which invariably there was a protein. The protein could be non vegetarian - fish, prawns, mutton [goat], and chicken - if this was the Goan style or it would be vegetarian and have beans if it was Manglorean. Sometimes the Manglorean style vegetable curries would have potato, sprouted beans or cauliflower. All delicious.

I used to look forward to Manglorean weddings because often you got `Batata Sukke’ a potato curry. Soon the Manglorean wedding had Punjabi food so that was that. Coconut curries became flavours of a bygone time. Coconut curries became rarer and rarer. Mangloreans soon marched on Paneer Tikka Masala.

I often wondered why it was so difficult to get a decent coconut curry at home anymore. Often I was told that the coconuts of today are just not like what they were 15 or 20 years ago. I did not really believe that, but, since I had no personal experience, I could not question the answer. My own opinion was that with advancing age, the mothers and aunts used short cuts to make curries. Servants on the other hand became younger as old retainers who knew how to cook this kind of food soon retired or died or became drunks. No new servant knew how to make a decent curry, and to make matters worse, no one had the patience to train them. The next generation of women had not much of a clue on how to cook a decent coconut curry. The young ones wanted to make pizza or a `baked dish’ or Fajitas and Tacos. In many cases the oldies were either alone at home and simply did not have the energy to make a coconut curry or the oldies lived with the next gen and was fed Nachos. All this meant no curry at home.

The only place where one could get a decent coconut curry was at the Manglorean and Gomantak restaurants that sprung up everywhere. Apoorva, Trishna and Mahesh were Manglorean and Saayba, Highway Gomantak, Sachin and Gajalee were the Gomantak/Malwani style. So much so that if you go to these restaurants today a large proportion of the guests are mummies and daddies, old mummies and daddies who cannot cook and do not get old style food at home.

I did think it was a ridiculous state of affairs. But try as much as I wanted, getting a recipe that worked was next to impossible. No mummy or aunt ever made a dish with ingredients that were measured. Frankly, that was just part of the problem. The real problem was they had simply not made a curry in years and had lost all touch.

I really wanted to make a decent coconut curry at home. It cannot really be all that difficult. To my mind it was essential to get a proper recipe, what I call a codified recipe. By this I mean a recipe that has definite measurements, a recipe that has been tested and most importantly has been given by a real chef.

Indian cookbooks on Indian food are a complete waste of time and money. I have only two that make any sense and where recopies are codified. One is Prashad – Cooking with Indian Masters by Jiggs Kalra and the second is Cooking Delights of The Maharajas by Digvijaya Singh. Both books are excellent. The rest that I have, Bilkis Latif on Andhra Food, Kaumudi Marathe on Marathi food, Sabita Radhakrishnan on Tamil food, the Calcutta Cookbook and Parsi food by Bhicoo Manekshaw are rubbish. Indian cookbooks brought out by Mahila Mandals do exist, but are badly written in every way. Indian cookbooks on foreign food are utterly and totally ridiculous.

Cookbooks on Indian food published abroad are excellent. Cyrus Todiwala, Atul Kochar, Vineet Bhatia, Udit Sarkhel’s book on Bengali food, Mrs. Balbir Singh and Madhur Jaffrey are all top class books. Camellia Panjabi book 50 Great Curries is also very good. Good codified recipes.

I had bought Vineet Bhatia’s book some years ago and had been making several of his recipes, South Indian Sambar, Cabbage Foogath, Shikampuri Kebabs and many more. Then last week, HRH the Queen of Kutch and I decided to give his recipe for South Indian Style Chicken Masala a try. I cannot tell you how utterly good the recipe is and what delicious results it gives. So much so that I was inspired to write this post. The recipe focuses on coconut. You use the flesh you use the milk and you use coconut oil in the tempering. The curry is a coconut curry and makes no bones about it. The brilliant bit about the recipe is that the curry is a very versatile vehicle. You could make a delicious chicken curry or an equally lip smacking vegetarian one with potato or cauliflower or double beans or even a Rajma. This is a really good recipe.

If any of you want to eat a curry that you remember from your childhood, or if you simply want to make a good curry go ahead and make this. I have only one request. Do not eat it on the day you cook it. Please cool the curry, put it in the fridge and eat it the next day. The curry will be much much better as all the flavours will have calmed and assimilated.

Here is the recipe

South Indian Style Chicken Masala – Vineet Bhatia
Serves 4 generously


For the Coconut base

5 to 6 dry red chillies or simply use chilli powder appropriately
150 grams fresh coconut grated [Half a coconut weighs between 130 to 150 grams so that should be enough]
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2.5 cms or 1 inch Cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds

For cooking the coconut base

4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds [yes that is a lot]
1 ½ tablespoons heaped of ginger garlic paste or ¾ tablespoons each of finely chopped ginger and garlic
1 medium onion thinly sliced [Ideally shallots or Madras Sambar Onions of an equivalent quantity]
1 sprig curry leaves washed and chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tomato pureed
200 ml thick coconut milk [a Tetrapak is fine. A tin of Thai coconut milk much better]
1 tablespoon Tamarind pulp [or more to taste]
400 grams chicken breast cut into strips [much like potato chips]

For the Tempering

2 tablespoon coconut oil
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds [yes that is a lot]
1 sprig curry leaves

Possible alternates to Chicken

Boiled double beans
Boiled Rajma
Boiled Potato and/or Cauliflower and /or peas


For the Coconut base

Take two heavy bottom fry pans. In one pan add the grated coconut in the pan and dry roast it, stirring from time to time till the coconut turns a light brown and has a nutty smell.

In the second pan toast the spices for the coconut base. If you are using chilli powder do not toast this. Simply add it into the blender.

Blend the contents of the two pans without any water. Once the mixture stops working add as little water as possible till you get a very fine paste.

Job done.

For cooking the coconut base

Heat the oil in a largish pan and add the mustard seeds. When they start popping add the ginger garlic [paste or chopped] and sauté a bit. Now add the onion [or shallots or sambar onion] and the curry leaves and sweat till they soften. Add the turmeric powder and then the Coconut base you have made. Keep stirring, be careful it sticks and it bubbles viciously so it may splash on you. Cook this for some time till the water sort of dries out and the raw flavour is gone.

Now add the coconut milk and bring to a boil.

The curry may be very thick. If so add some water to thin it down. The curry should have the consistency of a Chinese Sweet Corn Soup, about as thick as that. Add the Tamarind check the salt.

Now you can add the Chicken or the possible alternative to Chicken.

Once the Chicken is cooked [if using] or when the curry reaches a boil again if using the alternatives it’s time to temper.

For the Tempering

Heat the coconut oil in an appropriately sized pan. When hot add the mustard seeds wait till they start to pop and the curry leaves. Pour this into the curry.

Job done.

To eat

Ideally, as I have said, try and not eat it on the day you make it. Please cool the curry, put it in the fridge and eat it the next day. Heat gently adjust the seasoning.

This is great with plain hot boiled rice.


  1. Hi,
    Please check out the blog '' which has Konkani recipes giving measurements of ingredients. Another source is the Bible for Bhanap brides of 2 generations viz 'Rasachandrika'.Hope you find it interesting.

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