After all that excess of the new-year season, I found myself back home—and faced with the prospect of boring chicken.
All the red meat was history but I could not bear the thought of bringing mass-market chicken to my kitchen again. I will spare you another rant on the broiler. I did remember, though, that just before we left town for Christmas, I had eaten an amazingly tasty nati, or country chicken, made by our cook, Ambika.
To remind you, the nati chicken is the antithesis of the broiler. It comes in various colours, it is both indigenous and mixed breed, and because it scratches around in the dirt and eats a variety of seeds and worms and whatever else is available in India’s dirt, the nati’s diet is more varied. That is why it tastes so much better than the broiler, raised assembly-style, much like the Ford’s Model T was more than a century ago, on uniform, assembly-produced, industrial chicken feed.
I do a reasonable amount of the cooking at home but Ambika bears a major part of the burden. I can juggle deadlines and cooking, but, sometimes, when there is just too much to do, it’s all her. Since the wife gets bored easily and demands change—not just for her vegetarian food but the meat and fish I and the daughter eat—Ambika has learnt to experiment.
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One of those experiments came one day in December, when she considered the packet of nati chicken I found lying in a freezer at one of our neighbourhood cold storages, the Karnataka ham shop. Now, nati chicken in Bengaluru is costlier than broiler, perhaps because it is not mass-produced and is relatively hard to find.
Anyway, at lunch, I was confronted with a bright red nati chicken curry that was not overly spiced and merged very well indeed with the somewhat gamey but pleasing flavours of the chicken. It had body, bounce and verve, a pleasant change from broiler-chicken curries or roasts that shine only when you drown them in spices.
Despite the amounts of hormones and antibiotics pumped into it, there is an inevitability about the broiler. It is cheap and offers a lot of flesh for the buck. I remember how—as a hungry student counting my pennies—my eyes widened when they first fell on a 4-pound (1.8kg) packet of fat chicken drumsticks at a store in the American Midwest in the winter of 1992. All for $1.99 (around ₹160 now).
I grabbed the bag, hugged it close and walked the 4km home along the damp grass of a freezing, perilous highway with no pavements, triumphant with my giant drumsticks. When I did cook them, I used all the Indian spices I had, since I was in the mood for a spicy meal after weeks of living off 99-cent McDonald’s burgers. When I settled in to savour the curry, I was stunned. The chicken had almost no taste.
That is when I first realised the depravity of the broiler, a miserable creature, bred, fattened and medicated with only one aim: to provide as much meat as possible, as cheaply as possible. The taste is obviously immaterial. The American supermarket chicken is the pinnacle of broiler evolution, and the Indian broiler is only marginally better, retaining a whisper of taste.
I assumed Ambika was used to making the nati chicken because I remember her once saying that her mother liked the bird. When I asked if the delicious curry she had produced was her mother’s recipe, she said it was not. Do you not eat nati chicken at home? I asked. She smiled with some embarrassment. It emerged that while half the household did indeed like nati chicken, the other half preferred—horrors—broiler. Ambika was not among the nati chicken afficionados.
She said the recipe in this column just came to her. She knew the 12-year-old is not a great fan of red chilli and abhors cardamom, so she worked within those restrictions. She knew nati chicken had a flavour of its own, so she let that come through. And when she found the curry somewhat runny, she added—after watching me using it in Chinese cooking—cornflour.
So, here I am, faced with a year when I have resolved to eat healthier. That means I must eat more—shudder—chicken and fish, which is fine, but I have doubly resolved that the tasteless broiler and basa will be off the menu. Doubtless, I will be hard-pressed to find creative ways to make them palatable for the palate but I intend to have fun trying.
If you have any suggestions, please send them in.
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Ambika’s ‘nati’ chicken curry
1kg desi or nati chicken, curry cut
1 big onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp yogurt
One-and-a-half tsp chilli powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
Whole spices: 1-inch piece cinnamon, 4 cloves
2 tsp vegetable oil
2 tsp cornflour, dissolved in a little water (half katori)
Salt to taste
Marinate the chicken in yogurt, chilli, turmeric, coriander and salt and set aside for about an hour.
Heat the oil in a non-stick wok. Add whole spices for about one minute. Add onion and fry until golden brown. Add ginger-garlic paste and fry well for a minute or so. Add the chicken and mix well. Add 100ml water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, then bring to a boil again. Cover and cook for half an hour on low flame. Uncover, add cornflour, adjust salt if needed.
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.