Curry Leaf Popcorn Chicken by Nik Sharma

 Nik Sharma

Nik Sharma

My husband, Michael, grew up on a farm in the Deep South, and he taught me to love fried chicken. But I learned to make this dish from our dear friend Raina Pearce, who always shakes the chicken (or even shrimp) in small batches in resealable plastic bags to get a uniform coating of flour. Her method has never failed me.


SERVES 4

INGREDIENTS
Seeds from 4 green cardamom pods

  • 2 tsp coriander seeds

  • 2 tsp cumin seeds

  • 12 black peppercorns

  • 2 cups [480 ml] buttermilk

  • 2 to 3 serrano chiles, seeded, if desired

  • 6 scallions (white and green parts)

  • 30 curry leaves, preferably fresh

  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled

  • 1½ tsp cayenne pepper

  • One 1 in [2.5 cm] piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

  • ¼ cup [60 ml] fresh lime juice

  • 1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp fine sea salt

  • 2 lb [910 g] boneless, skinless chicken breast

  • 2 cups [280 g] all-purpose flour

  • 1 tsp baking powder

  • ½ tsp baking soda

  • 3 cups [720 ml] neutral-tasting oil

  • 4 green Thai chiles, seeded, if desired

  • Spiced Maple-Vinegar Syrup (page 200), Hot Green Chutney (page 277), or your favorite hot sauce for serving

Heat a small, dry skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cardamom, coriander, cumin seeds, and the peppercorns, and toast for 30 to 45 seconds, swirling the mixture occasionally until the seeds release their aroma and start to brown. Divide the toasted spice mixture in half. Transfer one half of this mixture to a spice grinder and pulse to a fine powder. (You can prepare the spices up to 1 week in advance and store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.)

In a blender, combine the remaining toasted spice mixture with the buttermilk, serrano chiles, scallions, 15 of the curry leaves, the garlic, 1 tsp of the cayenne, the ginger, lime juice, and 1 Tbsp of the salt. Pulse until completely smooth and transfer to a large resealable plastic bag. Pat the chicken breasts dry with paper towels. Trim excess fat from the chicken, and cut the flesh into 1 in [2.5 cm] cubes. Add to the marinade. Seal the bag and shake to coat evenly. Refrigerate for 4 hours.

Meanwhile, prepare the dredging mixture. In a large resealable plastic bag, combine the remaining half of the ground spice mixture with the flour, baking powder, baking soda, remaining ½ tsp cayenne, and remaining 1 tsp salt, shaking vigorously to blend. Finely chop 10 of the remaining curry leaves and add them to the dredging mixture. Seal the bag and shake again to mix well.

Once the chicken has marinated, use tongs to lift out half the chicken pieces, shaking off the excess batter, and transfer to the bag with the dredging mixture. Seal the bag and shake to coat evenly. Transfer the chicken pieces to a wire rack. Repeat with the remaining chicken.

In a medium Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat to 350°F [180°C]. Fry the chicken in batches, turning occasionally, until golden brown and cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon or a spider, transfer the chicken to paper towels to drain.

After the chicken is cooked, prepare the garnish: Cut the Thai chiles in half lengthwise. In the hot oil left in the pot, deep-fry the chiles and remaining 5 curry leaves until crispy, 30 to 40 seconds. Drain on paper towels.

Put the chicken on a serving plate, garnish with the chiles and fried curry leaves, and serve hot with the maple-vinegar sauce or hot sauce.

The Approach

Whenever I make popcorn chicken or fry larger serving pieces, I flavor the dish in stages. The whole spices are toasted to activate their oils. These are then blended into buttermilk to create a savory marinade. More seasoning is then added to the flour in the dredging mixture, and finally, the hot little nuggets of chicken are topped with crunchy fried curry leaves and chile peppers. While we often eat this with a hot sauce or ranch dressing, the very best accompaniment is the maple-vinegar syrup or green chutney.

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Reprinted from Season by Nik Sharma with permission by Chronicle Books, 2018