I want to kick-off this post by clarifying that in my chicken drumstick curry the ‘drumstick’ refers to the moringa fruit (commonly known drumsticks in India). The moringa has caught the world’s imagination as a superfood and everything from its leaves to its fruit are consumed in the form of teas, capsules, health powders, drinks etc. Moringa oleifera or murunga, murungakkai, morunga, munaga, sojana, sajana, shajna and the many other names by which we know it in India, has been a part of our cuisine for ages. We’ve grown up eating its tender leaves and drumstick-shaped fruit in curries, dals and stir fries. Shaped like a long, thin pod, it has a slightly thick, leathery skin with soft, pulpy flesh inside. Almost gel-like in texture (when cooked), it also contains tender, edible seeds. Cooking softens the skin whereby the pieces are split open and the pulp sucked up.
In South India, moringa trees are everywhere, in gardens and backyards, dangling a new crop of fruity every few weeks. Here, you’ll find drumsticks in tart sambars, in sauteed dishes or stir fries with shallots, curry leaves and coconut, in dals and mixed vegetable dishes like avial and also in meat dishes like this chicken drumstick curry. Drumsticks are cut into finger-length pieces. A curry such as this has its origins in Tamil and/or Telugu cuisine typified by the use of tamarind, dried red chillies and coconut to create curries with thickish gravies.
A curry with rounded, layered flavours and aromas that linger on your fingers (it’s not considered a bad thing in India) and in your memory demand a little patience that’s needed to go through the step-by-step cooking process. So pour yourself a glass of wine and savour the cooking as much as you would eating it. I use skinless, bone-in chicken pieces for this chicken drumstick curry. You can choose to use the full bird (as is generally the case in most Indian curries) or go for cut-up chicken thighs and drumsticks(legs, in this case). Retaining the bones creates more intense flavours since the bones cook in the curry like they would in a stock pot, building taste and aroma into the sauce/gravy.
This chicken drumstick curry needs a coconut-based masala paste. Fresh coconut, ground up with spices lends a creaminess and sweetness to the curry. If you can’t get hold of fresh coconut, dehydrated coconut flesh(sold as copra in India) is the best alternative; although the taste will be somewhat altered with a pronounced hit of coconut oil. This happens because all the water has been leached from copra, concentrating the oil within. That said, the flavour is not unpleasant, just different from the mellower notes of fresh coconut. Dehydrated coconut or copra or khobara in fact is used in many curries especially those belonging to the Malvani, Kolhapuri and Khandeshi cuisines of Maharashtra.
As anyone who cooks curries often will tell you, be patient while caramelising the onions (believe me, it makes all the difference to the taste and consistency of the dish). Grating the onions instead of grinding them speeds up the process, in my opinion (grinding just releases too much onion juice). A dash of sugar also helps it along. So relax, show the onions some love and brown them low and slow till they’re jammy and aromatic.
A hint of sourness or tang in this drumstick curry is a result of adding yoghurt. Day-old, natural yoghurt works best(you don’t need a lot, about 150ml). I skipped the tamarind because I was seeking subtle sourness. To enhance the body and creaminess of the sauce, I ground-up a couple of teaspoons of poppy seeds (which must be soaked in a little water for an hour to make grinding them easier).
The other ingredients in this chicken curry are regular curry staples such as onions (red, not white), garlic, ginger, green chillies and spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves etc. Grind-up the masala, get the onions minced, ginger and garlic pounded and everything prepped before you begin. That way you’re unlikely to miss out on any ingredient. This is a curry that you make a big batch of and serve with plain, steamed rice and papads(poppadums). I made a big pot for lunch last Sunday and had enough leftover for another meal.
Chicken Drumstick(Moringa) Curry
- 11/2 kgs chicken, skinless, bone-in, cut into medium-sized pieces
- 2 large onions, peeled and grated in a food processor
- 5-6 cloves of garlic, roughly pounded
- 2-inch piece ginger, roughly pounded
- 10-15 fresh curry leaves
- 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
- 4 whole green cardamoms
- 2 dried bay leaves (tej patta)
- 2x1-inch pieces cinnamon sticks
- 4 whole cloves
- 2 tbsp any flavourless vegetable oil
- 1 tsp garam masala
For the masala paste
- 1/2 small, fresh coconut, grated or cut into small pieces
- 5 fresh green chillies
- 2 tsp poppy seeds, soaked in 2 tbsp water for easy grinding
- 150 ml thick, natural yoghurt
- 1 1/2 tbsp Kashmiri chilli powder increase or reduce the amount as preferred
- 2 tbsp coriander powder
- Grind all the masala ingredients in a coffee grinder using a little water to get a thick, creamy paste.
- Place chicken in a shallow bowl, sprinkle ½ tsp ground turmeric and a tsp of salt, mix well, cover and keep in the fridge for 2 hours or even overnight. Allow the chicken to come to room temperature before you begin cooking (putting cold meat in a hot pan can make it tough).
- Heat 2 tbsps of vegetable oil in a wide pan, and when it’s medium-hot, toss in the cardamom, cloves, cinnamon sticks and bay leaf taking care not to burn the spices.
- Saute the spices for 10-15 secs and add the grated onion. Keep the flame on low-medium and fry the onions, stirring intermittently till they are golden and caramelised. Add a tsp of sugar to help with the browning.
- Add the pounded ginger and garlic to the caramelised onions and continue to fry for 3-4 mins till they stop smelling raw.
- Now lower the flame, remove the pan from the stove and add the ground masala paste stirring well (add a tbsp or two of water to loosen the mixture). Return the pan to the flame and cook the masala for 5-7 minutes, till you see tiny bubbles of oil separating on the edges of the masala.
- Now is the time to put in the chicken and season the curry with salt. Mix well to coat the meat with the masala. Pour 250 ml water, toss in the curry leaves, cover the pan, and cook the curry on a medium flame for 15-20 minutes.
- Once the chicken is almost done, add the drumstick pieces, cover and cook for a further 10 minutes(adding if the sauce is too thick). Sprinkle garam masala, simmer for a minute more till the curry is done.