Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Rabbit Recipes: Bengali White Chicken Curry (Rezala) - the original korma? And a waffle on Bengali history...

I think this dish might be the origin of the British chicken korma. I can't say for sure, because I've never eaten one - curry snob, me - but the creaminess and gentleness of the flavours (and the fact that it comes from the region most "Indian" chefs in Britain come from - suggests to me that it might be the inspiration.

I'm always intrigued by the dual personality of Bangladeshi cuisine, which I think might be related to the history of Islam in Bengal. One aspect of Bengali cuisine is almost East Asian - having more in common with the flavours of Vietnam and Thailand than the "curries" we know of in Britain. The flavours are hot, sharp, pungent, with thin broths, a lot of vegetables, fish and seafood rather than meat, and pounded chilli and fish pastes. But then, another aspect is very rich, fragrant and reminiscent of Persian cuisine. I think it's a difference between what's been identified as the atraf and the ashraf sections of the Bengali Muslim population, a division that goes back to the early nineteenth century as historian Richard Eaton has written about - the former, the agragrian, rural population, and the latter, the urban, middle class and notably, for a time, Urdu-speaking section of the community. It would make sense, right? The hot thin broths, wholesome and hearty, eking out precious harvested supplies for as long as possible; the Persian inspired foods created for a wealthier population always looking to aspire to the cultural heritage of Persia and Afghanistan. (Still ongoing - both my sister's and my name are Persian in origin). Now, both cuisines are eaten by most sections of the population - though with obvious regional differences. But rezala reminds me a lot of Persian food, and I wonder if it was eaten by the ashraf as they read their ghazals and dreamt of (and up) their Iranian and Peshwari ancestors.

It doesn't look that special, does it? (My amazingly rubbish photography skills aren't helping it, though, to be fair). But trust me - it really is. This is my sister the spice-weener's favourite curry, and also has made it onto Bartimaeus's short list of "Bengali curries that taste nice to a Gujarati palate" (hmph). It's definitely one for the spice-shy - but that doesn't mean it's not full of flavour. It's rich, made with a base of softened grated onions, creamy and sweet from the greek yoghurt and brown sugar, and aromatic, scented with saffron and cardamom. In Bangladesh, it's usually eaten as a special occasion dish with a buttery pilau or to accompany a biryani, but I made it yesterday, just cos.

My recipe is inspired by one on My Saffron Kitchen, but simplified a lot and adapted via how I know my mum makes it. I have to say, in all my attempts to replicate my mother's cooking, this has come closest! Whilst there's a lot of aromatics involved in place of spice, making for a long ingredients list, this is actually a ridiculously simple curry to make, but tastes like a lot of effort has gone into it!

Whilst you can serve it with pilau for a truly indulgent dinner, I served it yesterday with basmati - just simple, clean, pure. Cream on snow white prettiness. (Just to clarify, we then had spinach dal - there's not a meal in the Rabbit-Bartimaeus household that doesn't feature vegetables! But I always eat my dal last, as is customary.) Either way, rezala makes for a comforting, soothing, winter dinner.

This is yet another recipe that requires 24 HOURS marinading if possible (though yesterday I made it on the spur of the moment, and left it for an hour and it tasted fine). I think if you wanted to make this an easy two-pot meal, chucking in some frozen peas or some spinach a few minutes before it's done would be fine.

1 800g pack of chicken thighs and legs (chicken breast if you wish, but it's generally not good in curries I think as the bones impart so much chickeny flavour)
1/2 400ml pot of real full fat greek yoghurt (none of this "greek-style, fat free, full of sugar" malarkey here please)
2tbsp double cream
2tsp fresh ground black peppercorns
1 3cm stick of ginger, grated into 1tbsp of puree (if you freeze the ginger and then let it thaw ever so slightly, it's much easier to grate and keeps for ever)
1 tbsp of crushed/pureed garlic
2 medium onions, grated (I used my mini Kenwood processor for this otherwise tearifying job)
1 tbsp ghee
2 tsp garam masala
4 cloves
2 bay leaves
1 piece of cinnamon bark
1 green chilli, sliced in half, deseeded
4-5 strands of saffron
2 tsp rose water (not essential, couldn't really taste it in the final dish)
5 green cardamom pods
1 tbsp green raisins (gentler in flavour than dark ones, though you could add 1/2 tsp of those if you can't find these prettiest jewels of dried fruits - they're easily found in Asian and Middle Eastern shops though)
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
2 tbsp brown sugar
salt to taste

Mix the cream, yoghurt, ginger paste, garlic paste and ground pepper together into a marinade. Mix the chicken into it thoroughly (slashing the meat if you like) and marinade overnight or for 1 hour at least.

Melt ghee in a large heavy bottomed shallow saucepan on medium-low heat. Add the grated onions and a pinch of salt (to stop onions from browning too fast) and cook slowly until fragrant and a soft paste.

Add the green chilli, garam masala, nutmeg, bay leaves, cinnamon bark, cloves and cardamom pods, and fry on slightly higher heat until spices release their scent.

Add the chicken, being sure to pour in all of the cream-yoghurt marinade. Stir thoroughly.

Salt to taste. Add saffron, rose water, raisins and brown sugar, and 1/2 cup of water.

Cook on medium-high until the chicken is cooked through.

Serve to spice-weeners and spice-champs alike.