Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a generic curry powder. In fact, the term curry powder didn’t exist until the 18th century when local cooks in Madras (now called Chennai in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state) packaged a spice blend for British colonialists to take home with them. Hence, Madras curry powder is one of the most common curry blends you can find on the market.
So what’s in a curry? It is, to put it simply, a blend of spices called a masala and may contain two or three spices, or a dozen or more; and it varies from region to region, household to household.
It is widely accepted that curries originated in India and the phenomena has spread across the world through migration and trade over the centuries. The Indians who migrated to Southeast Asia brought with them not only their religion and cultural practices but their cuisine and cooking techniques as well.
In Singapore, I grew up eating Indian-style fish head curry and roti prata dipped into mutton curry. I also ate curries based on spice pastes called rempah (Malay) and bumbu bumbu (Indonesian). These pastes comprised herbs and spices such as chilies, lemongrass and galangal plus other ingredients like candlenuts and shrimp paste to make a wet paste instead of a dry spice blend.
My mum would also make what she called a Chinese-style curry. And surprise, surprise, I discovered the Vietnamese have a very similar version. Cathy Danh was gracious enough to share her grandmother’s recipe with me.
Vietnamese Chicken Curry (Ca Ri Ga)
This mild adaptation of an Indian curry has a Vietnamese twist added—sweet potatoes. Cathy Danh’s grandmother cuts up her chicken into various parts. But Cathy likes to make it with just drumsticks since they’re a hot commodity in her family. She also uses a combo of white and sweet potatoes. If possible, allow the curry to sit overnight so that the chicken really absorbs the flavors from the spice-rich gravy.
Time: 2 1/2 hours (30 minutes active)
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped (1 1/2 cups)
2 tablespoons Vietnamese or Madras curry powder
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
3- to 4-pound chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces; or 3 pounds bonein
chicken parts of your choice (drumsticks, wings, breasts, etc.)
20-ounce can (2 1⁄3 cups) coconut milk
1 cup water, plus more as needed
2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes and/or russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Add the onion and stir and cook until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Add the curry powder and ¼ teaspoon salt and stir until fragrant, about 15 seconds.
Add the chicken and brown for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Don’t worry about completely cooking the chicken at this point, you just want to sear the meat so that it retains its juices and doesn’t fall apart during cooking.
Add the coconut milk and water followed by the potatoes. Make sure the chicken pieces and potatoes are completely submerged in the liquid. If necessary, add more water. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover. Simmer for at least 1 hour, preferably 2.
When the dish is done, the chicken will be fall-apart tender and the gravy will be thick from the starch of the potatoes. Add the remaining salt. Serve hot with freshly steamed rice or French bread.
Variations: When frying the onion, throw in chopped lemongrass or crumpled kaffir lime leaves for a very Southeast Asian flavor.
Add red chili flakes or ground red dried chilies to give the curry a little more kick.
For a lighter curry, decrease the amount of coconut milk and top off the difference with water.
Pat’s Notes: For a true Viet flavor, buy Vietnamese curry powder from an Asian market. This golden curry mixture is very similar to a Madras curry powder and is made of curry leaves, turmeric, chili, coriander, cumin seeds, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, allspice, and salt. Cathy’s grandmother prefers the Con Voy brand but D&D Gold Madras curry powder is also recommended.
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