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A hint of summer and a roast chicken recipe with thyme

A Mediterranean herb, that medieval knights tied to their armour for strength, thyme has gone desi and is the ideal herald of warm days

Roast chicken with thyme and vodka. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)
Roast chicken with thyme and vodka. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

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Here’s what I feel grateful for: that the third covid-19 wave is receding; that I have some sources of income, including this column; that unlike so many millions reeling from the economic effects of the pandemic, I am extraordinarily privileged; that schools have reopened, and the child is back to waking up at 5.50am.

Here’s what I do not feel grateful for: that schools have reopened, and the child is back to waking up at 5.50am.

I have mixed feelings about school after nearly two years of seeing our preteen attend classes on the bed, on the sofa, in ragged clothes, in the bedroom—everywhere but at her table, waltzing away from class to get frequent snacks or wake up and harass the cat. I enjoyed having her at home though, and while I am grateful to find more time for work and for myself, I must admit I miss her rambunctious presence.

Covid-19 is receding just in time for the first hint of summer, at least in Bengaluru. Despite the shade of those giant rain trees and the Bengaluru breeze, the days are warm, the trees are bare, and that itch in the eyes indicates the seasons are changing. There is, of course, the brief bloom of the iridescent Tabebuia to look forward to, but it is all too fleeting. The evenings and early mornings are cool and quite lovely, as they always tend to be, even though the city continues to lose its trees—60,000 are marked for destruction in the latest round of chopping for flyovers, Metro and various other symbols of “development”.

What this means is that the effect of the sun is more pronounced than ever, making the transition from winter sharper than ever. I have often written about how my approach to food changes with the season and how I tend to make simpler food, reducing the number of ingredients and focusing on what’s easily available—like, well, vodka.

The wife has switched some of her evening nightcaps from beer to vodka, and because I tend to grab whatever alcohol is going around for my kitchen, I thought some Smirnoff might be a good idea.

This is also the season when the markets are bursting with fresh produce. I like to trawl the shelves, meditatively and furtively—to avoid the frowns I tend to receive from store clerks or vegetable vendors—touching and feeling the vegetables on offer.

It was during one of my touchy, feely expeditions that I saw the bounty of spring herbs that were once regarded as alien to Indian kitchens but are now grown locally: rosemary and basil (which we have largely stopped buying since we grow them on our balcony), parsley, sage and thyme. Some of these are delicate herbs and to keep them safe from herb manhandlers like me, and I suppose for ease of transportation, they were, tragically, wrapped in plastic.

In the event, I picked up a pack of thyme, a herb I should use more often than I do. There are few herbs so closely associated with the sun and general well-being than thyme, originating as it does in the warmth of the Mediterranean. Its aromatic, woody flavour is good for soups, meats, vegetables and its mild, inoffensive characteristic melds easily with other herbs. I was struck when I read that it was tied by medieval European knights to their armour in the belief that it would give them strength: It is indeed known for its medicinal benefits. It’s good for cough, it is an enemy of hostile bacteria, and the ancient Egyptians used it to, well, embalm bodies.

I like thyme because unlike other herbs it can withstand a reasonable degree of heat. It marries well with potatoes, chicken, lime and white wine. I did not have white wine, so I grabbed my wife’s vodka. I am not sure it was a good enough substitute; it was all right. If you have it, I recommend white wine.

If you think thyme sounds too alien, think again. It’s widely grown in the subcontinent, there are YouTube videos about the “harb” that grows easily in gamlas, or pots, and you can find explanation of the benefits of thyme, “jari booti”, or medicinal plant. Oh yes, and the late Tarla Dalal used to use it.

Roast chicken with thyme and vodka
Serves 2-3

Half kg chicken
1 onion, sliced into thin rings
1 tomato, thinly sliced
2 tsp mustard paste
8-9 sprigs of thyme
2 tsp black pepper
One-fourth cup vodka (ideally, use white wine and add it to chicken on the pan)
One to one-and-a-half tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste


Marinate the chicken in salt, mustard and pepper and set aside for an hour. Warm 1 tbsp of oil in a pan and fry the chicken until brown, about 20 minutes or so. In the same pan, caramelise the onion rings. In an ovenproof dish, create a bed of onion rings and sliced tomatoes and half the thyme. Place the chicken on it, pour over the vodka and roast in a pre-heated oven at 220 degrees Celsius for 40 minutes, taking care to turn the pieces and baste them with oil or the pan juices. Place the remaining thyme sprigs between the chicken 10 minutes before removing.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11

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