Chicken ularthiyathu (pronounced oo-lar-thi-ya-da) is a semi dry, spicy chicken dish from Kerala. Syrian Christian kitchens all over the state take great pride in their fish and meat dishes. The ularthiyathu style of cooking – slow frying or roasting of meats, that renders them tender while giving them a nice brown char. Beef ularthiyathu is famously cooked for every Christmas feast. No festive table is considered complete without this beloved dish. Chicken ularthiythu was perhaps created for the non-beef eating palates of the state; even mutton (goat) is cooked this way with the same spices.
The rich spice heritage of Kerala is showcased in this dish. The heady aroma and typical flavours of a chicken ularthiyathu recipe comes from the combination of spices in the mixture of ground spices and the thin slivers of lightly fried coconut. How much cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, aniseed, pepper and nutmeg one puts in the masala powder defines the authenticity of a great chicken ularthiyathu. Adding few more cardamoms or leaving out the fennel seed, for example will not yield the taste and smell of an ularthiyathu.
Let me explain what I mean. I tasted an ularthiyathu for the first time at my husband’s aunt’s place, when as newly weds, we were doing the rounds of relatives’ homes. She’s a lady with a caustic tongue but she cooked a mean mutton ularthiyathu that day. I cannot adequately or accurately describe the impact of those delicious crispy-tender morsels of mutton (goat) on my palate. The concentration of complex, savoury, meaty flavours punched me in my mouth. The memory of that meal, 20 years later, still makes me salivate. So you see, that intense infusion of ingredients into the meat came from a perfectly balanced mixture pounded of spices.
I tried many times to replicate that bomb of a dish in my kitchen, but always felt that something was missing. My memory failed to bloom every time I tasted my dish of chicken or mutton ularthiyathu. But I didn’t give up, I took small tips from almost all the Malayalis (Keralites) in my life – friends, family, and every cookbook I could lay my hands on. Slowly, after many tweaks and tucks, I was able to cook a decent, maybe even delicious ularthiyathu that matched my ideal. Today, I’m sharing this chicken ularthiyathu recipe with you. Mine has chicken but you can make this with goat, lamb or beef.
The recipe for the spice blend is included as is the amount added to the chicken. But it’s completely up to you, how much of this ground masala you want to use depending on how spicy (or not) you like it. The blend is quite robust so my advice would be add a little and thereafter add more (if required) as you taste the dish. The fried slivers of coconut too are optional but I would urge you to add them (although this time I didn’t add any). The mild coconut is a good contrast to the spicy meat.
Lots of fresh, fragrant curry leaves and a tablespoon of coconut oil drizzled in the end, rounds off the dish and brings everything together nicely. But if you don’t care for the coconut oil, it’s ok to skip it. The finished dish should be a rich, dark brown, almost black. Eat your chicken ularthiyathu with plain steamed rice and a simple dal or with parathas and a cucumber and tomato salad. Personally I feel that chicken / beef / mutton ularthiyathu cooked the day or night before grows in flavour. If you decide to make it, do let me know how it turns out.
Kerala-Style Chicken Ularthiyathu
- Flat, wide pan, cast iron works well.
- 500 gm chicken (on the bone,curry cut)
- 100 + 50 gm shallots thinly sliced
- 1 tbsp (heaped) ginger
- 1 tbsp (heaped) garlic
- 20 + 10 curry leaves
- 70 gm fresh coconut cut into thin, 1-inch slivers and tossed in a pinch of turmeric (optional)
- 3 tbsp coriander powder
- 1 tbsp chilli powder
- 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
- 2 tsp ground spice mix (recipe given below)
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil (to fry the coconut if using)
- 3 tsp coconut oil
- 1 tbsp white vinegar
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
For the dry ground spice mix
- 1 2-inch piece cinnamon
- 5 green cardamom pods
- 4-5 cloves
- 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
- 2 tsp aniseed
- 1/4 tsp mace
- 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
- 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
- To make the spice mix, gently dry roast the whole spices in a pan on a low flame for a couple of minutes. Toss them around in the pan to prevent them from burning. Cool and grind in a blender or coffee grinder. Transfer to an airtight jar with a tight lid. Use as required.
- Mix the chicken with all the ingredients, setting aside 50 gm of shallots, coconut, 10 curry leaves, mustard seeds, coconut oil and the ground spices. Marinate overnight or for an hour.
- Fry the coconut slices in a tsp of oil and set aside.
- Put the chicken in a flat, wide pan (the surface area will help the pieces brown evenly). Cover and cook on a medium flame, stirring intermittently and adding a tbsp of water (only if required). The chicken will release enough steam to cook. The medium-high flame will help the pieces brown.
- Cook the chicken for 15-20 minutes till done. When it is almost done, heat coconut oil in a small pan, add the mustard seeds and let them crackle, add the remaining shallots and curry leaves and fry till golden. Pour this seasoning on the chicken and mix well.
- Reduce the heat, add the ground spice mixture and cook for a minute more before turning off the heat.