My parents grew up in tiny villages in the Fiji Islands where chickens roamed freely and fresh eggs were collected daily. A few years after they had moved to the US, my mother perhaps a bit nostalgic for the "old country" decided she wanted to install a chicken coop in our backyard. At first, my father objected since we lived in a fairly urban environment and he feared the noise would bother our neighbors whose fond childhood memories most likely didn't include free range chickens. My mother isn't one to take no for answer and after months of hearing, "these eggs have no flavor, our own eggs would be so much nicer, what this garden needs is fresh fertilizer, Moti down the street has chickens and nobody complains, you don't care about me go to hell," my father finally relented and together with my grandfather, they built my mother the chicken coop of her dreams.
Our chicken coop butted up against the fence that led into our front yard and it was not uncommon for the chickens too squirm their way free, just in time for my afternoon walk home from school. The sight of five our six chickens roaming the street sent my friends into fits of giggles, "Hey, Alpana aren't those your chickens? What, are you guys like farmers or something?" I, of course, would deny the whole thing in order to save myself from embarrassment since having a chicken coop back then wasn't the cool sustainable affair it is today. In today's world, a kid in a similar situation would be able to proudly fire back, "Yes those chickens belong to us and we raise them because they are a sustainable way to source healthy fresh eggs and reconnect with nature. My parents love me and they prefer that we not ingest mass factory produced agro-business poultry products and besides, chicken droppings enrich your compost." OK, perhaps I exaggerate a bit but I have to give my mother some credit here, she was way ahead of her time.
In addition to not liking store bought eggs, my mother also really hated the blandness of supermarket chicken, all meat - no flavor she claimed. When we had special family members visiting, my mother would often make curry from freshly slaughtered chickens as a token of great hospitality and respect. Actually, you could tell what type of visitor we had based on what animal ended up on the sacrificial chopping block for dinner. Seafood meant my parents wanted to show up a haughty relative and was the equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses (I'm not sure what the Indian version of Joneses is, keeping up with the Patels maybe?), a goat or lamb signified a prominent, well respected elder or a long lost visitor from Fiji my parents hadn't seen in twenty years and a chicken meant my parents were in a Johnnie Walker mood to celebrate and party.
My parent's chickens were like their pets and we certainly couldn't eat them so my mother would need to source new, anonymous birds for dinner. The morning of the big feast we would rise early and no less than six of of us would pile into our wood panelled blue station wagon and drive out to Prunedale, a rural yet charming farming community located about 20 miles from where lived. Over the years of maintaining our chicken coop, my mother learned how and where to source live chickens. Her strategy was hardly complicated, she would drive around until she saw a chicken on someone's property at which point she would park the car, locate the homeowner and ask, "Excuse me sir, do you have any chickens for sale?" Perhaps perplexed by the sight of a car full of Indians, some of whom were dressed in saris, the farmer would sometimes inquire about the fate of his birds to which my mother would calmly reply, "We're going to kill them and eat them." Once the financial business was sorted out (my mother is a skilled and notorious haggler), the chickens were caught and stuffed into 50 gallon, tarp-like bags and then placed into the back area of our station wagon, alongside me and my brother. In case you've never had the pleasure of sitting in a car next to bag full of live chickens who know they're headed for trouble, I'll tell you what you missed. The chickens don't just quietly sit there - they caw, flap around and are very violent. I was so scared and sure that one of them was going to scratch it's way out of the bag and in an Alfred Hitchcock like scene, seek revenge by poking and pecking our eyes out. To this day, I'm deathly afraid of chickens - a bonafide condition known as Alektorophobia - seriously, look it up.
My mother can pluck, skin, gut and break down a chicken in 10 minutes flat but she considers it un-lady like to actually kill a bird. This job was left to the men in our family. My father is a bit of sensitive soul who could never muster the ability to kill anything so one of my uncles had to do it. Of course, you had to catch them before they got too far in into the Johnnie Walker and beer. Slaughtering and drinking don't mix, trust me on this one. Once the deed was was done, the chickens were handed off to my mother to perform what she liked to call, "the operation". This last step involved getting the chicken cleaned, dressed and ready to turn into curry.
After the curry had finished cooking, we would all get together and eat. Everyone would compliment my mother on how delicious everything tasted and how much the flavors reminded them of back home. My mother would take a more humble approach and comment how the curry needed more salt or it was not spicy enough. It sometimes weirded me out to think that a creature I had been riding in the back seat with just a few hours ago was now on my dinner plate but I tried not to think about this part and instead focused more on how my mother was right, this chicken did taste differently, it was indeed much better.
Here is my mother's curry chicken recipe. As for what to drink with it, my family chose Scotch but if you're looking for a wine pairing suggestion, I would recommend Prosecco. The fruitiness contrasts the heat and spice in this dish. You could also go with a rich, fruit forward Malbec from Argentina. The dark plum flavors also play well with the heat and spice.
1 4lb Chicken - cut into 10 parts
2 cups sliced onions
3 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
1 - 3 inch piece of garlic
5 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
1 jalapeno or 2 Serrano chili peppers
4 tablespoons curry powder (you can make your own)
1/2 teaspoon tumeric
2 star anise (optional)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
Cilantro for garnish
Place garlic, ginger, salt & chili peppers into a food processor or use a mortar and pestle. Pulse or pound until smooth. Add the curry powder, tumeric and a splash of water and mix into a paste.
Heat oil in a dutch oven or large pot. Add the cumin seeds and star anise and sautee for 1 minute. Lower heat to medium and add onions and cook until slightly translucent, approx. 5-7 minutes. Add curry paste and sautee for 1 minute. Add chicken and toss until all the chicken is coated with the curry paste and cook over medium-high heat for 10-12 minutes. Lower the heat to medium, add enough water to cover the chicken and simmer with the lid slightly ajar for 1 hour. During this time check the chicken occasionally to make sure it is not burning. After an hour, if the sauce looks watery, you can reduce the liquid by boiling it on high heat without the lid on until you reach the desired consistency. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve over basmati rice.