This is my favourite chicken curry recipe, a staple over many years.
Curry comes from the Tamil word kari, and means sauce. So curry can be almost anything.
This one was born from the memory of a wonderful curry made at The Elephant, a Thai-French hybrid owned by a Frenchman on East 1st Street in the East Village. I used to eat lunch there sometimes, when I worked around the corner, at my garden designing desk. Lunch was a fraction of the dinner prices, although the menu was exactly the same. This curry was rich, and deep, a little salty and a little sweet, and also a little sour. It was perfect.
It took me a while, but as far as my taste buds are concerned, this is it.
The Elephant closed a few years ago, so I can't go back to compare.
Part of the curry's charm lay in its presentation - a deep china bowl of amber sauce with islands of chicken, carrot and potato breaking the surface, sprinkled with shredded mint. And beside it, a dinner plate with a dome of jasmine rice, a tiny banana, one side of it neatly cubed, the other lying lengthwise beside the cubes, small pieces of mango, a sprinkling of roasted peanuts and half a lime, sliced not across, but from top to bottom, off center, no mean wedge but a generous, squeezable handful. I usually ate the curry from the bowl, adding lime and mango and banana and rice as I went.
1 Tbsp coconut oil or other oil
4 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
1 finger of ginger, peeled, and thinly sliced
1 medium onion, chopped finely
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 Tbsp shrimp paste (or 2 salted anchovies - not the same, but not bad)
1 Tbsp palm sugar or brown sugar
1 Tbsp tamarind paste (subst. 2 Tbsp lime juice plus 1tsp sugar)
2 chicken thighs and 2 drumsticks
1 lemon grass base, sliced in half
3 Tbsp fish sauce
1 can coconut milk, without any additives, if possible
2 medium potatoes, in quarters, or 4 small, whole potatoes
1 large carrot, peeled, cut in large chunks
3 cups of water
1 Tbsp red chile flakes (this is not proper), or two hot dried Thai chiles
3 fresh makrut lime or lemon leaves or 1 dried Persian lime (heresy, but it has the same effect, really)
3 sprigs Thai basil
Fresh mint or cilantro or both
1 lime, cut into wedges
3 Tbsp roasted peanuts
1 ripe banana
Saute the garlic, ginger and onion over medium heat till the onion is translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the tomato paste, shrimp paste, sugar and tamarind. Stir to caramelize the tomato a little, and add the chicken pieces, allowing them to take a little colour, about 4 minutes
After a couple of minutes, add the fish sauce. Things will get smelly. Now add the coconut milk and stir very well to scrape up the sticky bits on the bottom. Add the vegetables, top with water until just covered, and stir again. Add the chile and lime/lemon leaves.
Cook at a simmer until the chicken is about to fall apart, about 1. 5 hours. Taste. You are aiming for slightly sweet, a little tart, hot, rich. You can add some more fish sauce or some lime juice if you like. Just before serving add the fresh basil and stir in.
Serve with steamed or sticky rice, with a side of chopped banana, a sprinkle of chopped roasted peanuts and fresh mint or cilantro. More lime is good, squeezed over just before eating.
This goes well with cold, cold, c-c-c-c-cold beer.