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The quintessential chicken curry

Ann Juli James from Ireland

30 minutes
Cooks in
60 minutes
Country of origin

In their twenties, my parents left the humid greenery of South India for the bushveld beauty of South Africa. My sisters and I were raised there. Every few years, we flew to visit relatives back “home.” Mostly, we felt like fish out of water – the Western cousins who could only manage small talk in the mother tongue. It was food that brought us together. Aunts would exclaim in dismay, “You’re just skin and bones!” and make it their mission to ensure we left the country at least 5kg “healthier.” Our mouths were crammed with fragrant rice pancakes, stewed tapioca and spicy sardines, fresh from the fishmonger’s cart. Then, of course, there were the curries. It turns out, the trauma of watching our grandfather behead a hen in the backyard did not prevent us from digging in heartily at the supper table.

Back in Africa, my mom held the fort with local ingredients, constantly preoccupied with what’s for supper – a circadian process that involved much onion-chopping and endless dishwashing. Needless to say, leaving home meant escaping to the heady independence of convenience-eating. After a good 10 years of carefree “coffee for breakfast, takeaways for lunch and cereal for supper,” I got married. And that to a madly-energetic health nut who could eat more in one sitting than our family of five combined. Panic set in. For the first time, I acknowledged that I needed to know how to cook.

Food has always been linked to identity for me – and making Indian meals was a way to welcome my strapping Afrikaans hubby into my family. In those first few months of marriage, I spent hours on the phone – my mom on speaker, issuing instructions while I ran around the kitchen, slicing furiously and dripping sauces from hot spoons. The first thing she taught me was the quintessential chicken curry. This is like a blueprint – once you perfect it, you can make many curries by tweaking it for your chosen meat. And so I did, and am pleased to report that my hubby has gained a healthy 5kg!


  • 2-4 tbsp coconut oil (butter or any other vegetable oil will do)
  • 3-4 medium brown onions, finely diced
  • 1 tbsp (or about a thumb-sized piece) fresh ginger, finely diced
  • 1 tbsp (or about 4 cloves) fresh garlic
  • 1 large tomato, diced
  • ½ tsp black mustard seeds
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced (optional)
  • 1kg chicken, cut into pieces with the bone in
  • 1-2 medium white potatoes, cut into six (optional)
  • ½ stalk curry leaves
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander seeds
  • 1 tbsp ground red chilli powder (there are many types with varying heat, so choose carefully depending on how well you handle heat)
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground cloves
  • ½ tsp ground cardamom seeds
  • ½ tsp table salt
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper


  • First – prepare all your ingredients. Chop up your onions and set aside. A food processor will spare you some tears here. You can also use one to chop and/or purée the garlic, ginger, tomato and bell pepper.
  • Measure out your spices – the ground coriander, chilli, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, salt and pepper – and set them aside in a bowl. It’s worth your while hunting out and buying good-quality spices. They last a while, and freshly-ground spices make a huge difference to aroma and flavour.
  • Cut and prepare your fresh chicken. If you don’t want the bother and mess of cutting up fresh chicken, a pack of drumsticks will do.
  • Now you’re ready to cook! Heat the coconut oil in a large pot – something round-bottomed, like a wok, works well.
  • After a minute, throw in your mustard seeds and if they sizzle and pop, your oil is hot enough for the next step.
  • Chuck in the onions – they should sizzle – then turn the heat down to medium-high. Sauté them for about 5 minutes or until they get soft and yellow-brown. This caramelising adds a natural sweetness to your dish, so don’t hurry it.
  • Add the ginger, garlic and your spice mix. Stir and fry for 5 minutes. Add a spoonful more of oil if the mixture seems dry and sticks to the pot.
  • Add the tomato and the bell pepper, if you have. These ingredients serve to thicken the curry. Cook for another 5 minutes.
  • Now drop in your chicken pieces. Stir to coat them, decrease the heat to medium, cover the pot and let it cook for 45 to 60 minutes in total.
  • Check on your curry after 25 minutes and stir the pieces around. Chicken meat has enough water in it so you shouldn’t need to add any – more water is released from them the longer your dish cooks. If you want to add potatoes to your dish, now is the time. If you do so, add in a quarter-cup of water because the potatoes absorb moisture. If the chicken is sticking to the bottom of the pot, pour in a few tablespoons of water and stir.
  • Once you can see the chicken is cooked to the bone, and any potatoes you might have are soft and can be run through with a fork, turn off the heat. Do a taste test, season if necessary, and mix in half your curry leaves. The curry’s texture should be thick, but not so much that you can’t scoop and pour it. If necessary, add a little water to thin the curry. If you want to thicken it, keep cooking so the liquid reduces.
  • To serve, garnish with the rest of your curry leaves or fresh coriander leaves. Curry should always be served hot, and is best eaten by hand with poori, roti, parotha or chapatti (basically, any kind of wrap to scoop it with) and raita (a tomato and/or cucumber yogurt salad).


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