By: Kayla & Justin Butts Photos by: Rachel Benavides
Curry is meant to be eaten with the fingers of the right hand. The touch of the fingers creates a connection, a closeness to the food.
Curry was our daily fare while trekking with horses through the Himalayan Mountains. We hiked up and down the perilous trails in blue skies or drenching rain, the shaggy black horses swaying under their loads, my hunger growling all day in the thin air.
Each night, the porter would build a fire from dried cow dung to cook curry with kidney beans and okra which he served to us on dented tin platters. My guide delighted himself in teaching me the foulest curse words in the Hindi language, and I shouted them into the night to the uproarious laughter of our little band as the ashes from the fire rose to a million glittering stars shining in the black.
We stopped at villages along the way so I could study their farming techniques. These modest farmers, illiterate and impoverished yet geniuses with the soil, were impeccable hosts.
Sitting in the upper room of a house, the farm wife served me a glass of mint tea with a dollop of freshly-churned butter dropped into the cup while the husband started a fire in the Franklin stove to prepare curd curry in a pressure cooker.
Two teenaged boys sat cross-legged in the corner giggling as they rolled hashish balls into a large pile. This particular preserve was part of the stock laid by to get this family through five long months of winter trapped in this tiny house. I sat on a threadbare rug and ate the yellow curry with my fingers, my stomach churning the curds and butter, and smiled and bowed my gratitude.
We stopped in a tea house for guides, some of the best mountaineers in the world, and sat around a table with our heads down eating a dark red curry so spicy that my face sweated and cheeks flushed and my breath came as hyperventilation. The heat of that curry kept even the bones warm at those frozen heights. Kayla’s red curry recipe is most like this one, but with the heat dialed down to the lowest setting.
There is no one curry of India, or of the mountains, or even of a village. Each family, and even members of the same family, have their own curry.
The coriander, cumin, and turmeric are ground differently or added to the cooking process at different stages. There are more or less chili spices, perhaps water or coconut milk or dry, with beans or eggs or curds or chicken, plus a variety of vegetables or none at all–infinite possibilities. No two are just alike, even cooked by the same person on different days.
At the guest house at the end of the line, we ate green curry with lentils served on 19th century china in the extravagant luxury of an English tea room. That curry was so good that it was ruinous, damning all the curries to follow, until this green curry recipe by Kayla, our closest approximation.
Eating curry with the fingers, in the Indian style, connects the person to the food and to the place. This is true whether sitting on a farmer’s floor in the Himalayas or at a farmer’s table in Rockport, or any place in the world where good people love great food.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 50 minutes
1 tsp coriander seeds
12 cardamom pods, with husks removed
(~ 1 tsp ground cardamom)
3/4 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp olive oil
2 ½ lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts and thighs
2 tsp salt, plus 1 tsp
1 tsp ground black pepper, plus ½ tsp
1 tbsp butter
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp turmeric
½ – 1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1 (14.5 oz) can crushed tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato paste
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 cup chicken stock
1 bunch fresh cilantro
Over low heat, roast coriander, cardamom, and cumin seeds, stirring regularly, until fragrant. Remove from heat, and grind spices using a grinder or mortar and pestle. Preheat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Season chicken with salt and pepper and add it to the pan in batches, making sure not to crowd the pan. Cook the chicken until brown (about 6 minutes on each side), but not cooked through. Set chicken aside and cut into bite-size pieces once cool. Add butter and onions to the pan and cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add garlic and ginger to the pan and cook for 30 additional seconds. Once garlic is fragrant, add the chicken, ground spice mixture, additional salt and pepper, and remaining ingredients. Heat to a boil, then decrease heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Serve curry over rice or with naan, topped with fresh cilantro and sliced lemon.
Green Chicken Curry with Lentils
Prep time: 7 minutes
Inactive prep time: 30 minutes to 8 hours
Cook time: 45 minutes
2 ½ lbs boneless, skinless chicken breast and thighs
(cut into bite-size pieces)
1 medium onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp curry powder
2 tsp salt
1 tsp fresh ginger, grated
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp cardamom
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
2 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp butter
2 cups chicken broth
Optional: 3/4 cup split lentils, rinsed
(if omitted, reduce chicken broth to 1 cup)
1 can (about 13.5 oz) full-fat coconut milk
In a leak-proof sealable bag, combine chicken, onion, garlic, and spices. Invert bag several times to combine ingredients. Marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes up to 8 hours. In a large sauté pan, melt butter in olive oil over medium heat. Once the butter has melted and becomes fragrant, add marinated chicken, chicken stock, and lentils to the pan. Cook 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to low-medium, add in coconut milk, and simmer (taking care not to boil) mixture for another 10 minutes, until chicken is cooked through and lentils are tender. Serve curry over prepared basmati rice or with naan, garnished with cilantro or basil and lemon wedges.