Chicken Jhol: Chicken cooked in an onion-tomato based Homestyle Gravy

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On many weekends in Bangalore, I often found myself in a dwam after waking up in the morning a time when memories of Sundays from my childhood played like a film in my mind. It happened more on a Sunday than a Saturday when no great shakes of the corporate week-life ahead hit hard. It happens even now, but then it felt different for some reason.


I was no longer living in a hostel or with Auntie A as I did in Bombay nor with sister M when I initially moved to Bangalore. We were four girls, living in a rented apartment grappling prosaic weekdays in corporate offices, dreaming big and working hard. When the week ended I was usually home waking up with my nose in a book or eyes swollen from watching an old Bollywood movie, and in that moment between slumber and awakening, I mostly missed the noises and smells of home.


My father being a banker worked 6 days a week, and perhaps that's why Sundays were salient for us as a family. All the slow cooking, tidying, cleaning and effort-taking tasks were done on a Sunday morning before we gathered at the table for a minimal yet finger-licking lunch consisting of a central meat dish like chicken or mutton with rice or rotis on the side and a big plate of vegetable salad. To a large extent, this story is true for many families in India, and a tad special for Bengalis and Odias. Pick a random Odia or Bengali, and they will turn nostalgic about their family recipe of a Sunday mangsa jhola /mangshor jhol, freshly bought mutton (goat meat) cooked in a thin runny gravy which is nothing like the ones you'd get in a restaurant how much ever it's pitched 'as good as home.'


Like all Odia and Bengali homes, my family also favoured the time consuming mutton than chicken which cooks faster. It wasn't until the late 90s when I was a budding teenager that mother started cooking chicken at home frequently. My eldest sister P had started college and ate out once in a while, and after tasting chicken she came back a convert. Not fond of fish a lot, she raised an important question, "Why not chicken jhol instead of fish on weekdays, and what about chicken instead of mutton on Sundays?" Mother and I were fish lovers, so that was not going away. But chicken found a place in the Sunday menu soon.

Mother was raised in a family who loved their meat. Apart from a plethora of fish and mutton, there was a lot of game meat, and some country chicken which does take quite a bit of time to cook. Father's family was a stark opposite. They never ate chicken, and fish or mutton only on a Sunday contrary to father who will eat it any given day! Amidst all of this, chicken somehow was never a showstopper in our home until late.


Upstaged by marine and fresh water meat fetched in Odisha and West Bengal, chicken has had its share of associated stigma and disregarded by the elite. "Raised by the poor", "unhygienic", "impure", "the banned bird", and more of such guff prevented chicken to be cooked in the homes of the soi-disant bada babus. Owing to the ancestral clout around chicken-eating and the soft soap around mutton and fish, there was a mental block to eating chicken that many middle class families had to overcome. This was perhaps also a case in my father's side of the family, which percolated into our dietary practices but thankfully disappeared with time.

The unpopularity of chicken in eastern Indian households until the 1970s is a paradox. Gallus gallus or the red jungle fowl, the prominent progenitor of the modern day chicken, is a native to the Indian subcontinent, going back to Indus Valley civilization in history. Domesticated in at least three different places in Asia and interbred with local populations of different jungle fowl species, the chicken was taken to West Asia, Europe and the Americas. This article in The Guardian sums it well:

The spread of chickens from Asia south- and eastwards is thought to have been initiated by the first farmers, or Austronesians, who spread from mainland China into Island South East Asia around 5000 years ago. With them, they took pottery and agriculture including domestic animals such as pigs and dogs. Although archaeological chicken remains from this region are very scarce, it is assumed that chickens formed part of this agricultural package as well.

Coming to this recipe of chicken jhol, I'd like to emphasize it's not a curry! Ever since colonization when Britishers coined the word curry to label every Indian dish that comes with gravy or based in stew, there must be a million 'chicken curry' dishes floating around on the internet and recipe books. A jhol is a colloquial term in the eastern Indian cuisine, West Bengal and Odisha to be specific, and refers to the gravy of a vegetarian or non-vegetarian dish. This gravy is not served on the side like the gravies served along with roasted meat as done in Europe and the Americas. It's part of the dish, rather the base in which the meat or vegetables cook, soak and float and get served.

Until I moved to Bangalore, I had never cooked non-vegetarian food as there weren't many opportunities to cook in the hostels while my land lady, Auntie A was a vegetarian, and couldn't tolerate non-vegetarian food in her kitchen! In the privacy of my own space in Bangalore, I first started cooking fish and then chicken. This chicken jhol, although draws from the flavours of chicken and mutton gravies my mother cooked as well as the ones I ate in the homes of many friends and relatives, it largely represents my own interpretations and contemplations of the tastes I enjoy the most in a jhol. I prefer light thin gravies in meats, loosely spiced with subtly caramelized onions and has a streak of acidity from tomatoes or yogurt, or sometimes both. Nothing is overwhelming and the meat which is marinated just right with some simple ginger, garlic and chilies gets tossed around and simmers in the jhol slowly, letting the fat float on top and announcing its doneness.


The other day, Priyanka from the Slow Kitchen fame started a conversation on Instagram, "Is cooking an act of individuation?" The dish that perhaps best answers this question for me is this recipe of chicken jhol - a dish that pioneered my journey in the kitchen to a large extent. I had surely cooked before, learning from Auntie A, taking notes over many phone calls with my mother, trying new things in sister M's kitchen. In my own kitchen however, especially with chicken recipes which were usually not common at home, I found my own culinary voice. I had begun to express myself in the seasoning I added, the techniques I developed and the foibles I embraced. My food, though inspired by all the people who fed me and provided pathways showing me ways to create in the kitchen, was beginning to reflect more of who I am and resonated with my thought process and feelings. It was a time when cooking started feeling meditative, an act of focusing inner thoughts and energies, in pursuit of individualization.


I have cooked this chicken for many people and they all love it. It was always rewarding to know that my housemates in Bangalore huddled around me in the kitchen when the scent of the gravy wafted to their rooms, reminiscing what home feels like. It's naturally my sister P's favourite although contrasting from her style of chicken jhol. The best part is that the recipe is quite versatile. So, I use it to make paneer or eggs for my vegetarian husband and he totally relishes it!


Pro Tip:


I don't believe in the readymade 'chicken masalas' sold out there! I make my spice blend fresh and use it in the dish, or sometimes make a little extra to stock up.


None of the flavours in this dish over power the senses. They are in perfect balance. I ensure this by not marinating the chicken for too long. I marinate it at the beginning and go about doing other prep. You can also marinate it in the morning, if you're planning this for lunch.


Since I marinate the chicken in yogurt which lends a sweet and sour note, I am judicious with the tomatoes I add. You can opt out the yogurt if you want, but use more tomatoes then.


To keep the gravy thin yet well assembled, cover and cook the chicken! Open towards the end and then let it simmer to slightly thicken the gravy. For the same reason, I also like to finely chop the onions instead of making a paste. If you make a paste, the texture will be different and the gravy will be thicker.


 

Recipe


Did you check the pro tip?


Ingredients
  • 600-700 grams chicken - breast and leg pieces included along with any other pieces you like

  • Spice blend: 1 tbsp coriander, 1 tsp cumin, 3-4 black pepper, 2 cardamom, strands of mace, 1-inch cinnamon, 1/2 tsp fennel - roast lightly and grind

  • Marination: 3 tbsp yogurt, 1/2 tsp turmeric, 1/2 tsp red chili, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 green chilies slit, 1 tsp of the spice blend

  • 3 tbsp oil

  • Whole spices: 1 bay leaf, 1 black cardamom

  • 1 tsp cumin

  • 1 tbsp ginger garlic paste

  • 2 medium onions chopped fine (chop them as fine as you can!)

  • 1 tomato chopped fine

  • 1/2 tsp ghee

  • a pinch of cinnamon (about 1/5 tsp)

  • cover and cook for thin jhol, open towards the end and let the gravy thicken slightly

  • fresh coriander to garnish

Method
  1. In a pan, dry roast the ingredients mentioned in spice blend. The roasting should be light - a couple of seconds until the spices turn mildly fragrant. Turn off heat, let the spices cool down and then blend them coarse. Keep aside.

  2. In a bowl, add the chicken along with the ingredients mentioned for marination. Mix everything with clean hands so that the spices and yogurt coat the chicken pieces. Cover and keep aside.

  3. In a heavy bottom pan or wok on medium heat, add oil. Once the oil is hot, add the whole spices. Toss around and then add cumin. Let everything crackle and then add ginger garlic paste. Sauté for a few seconds and then add the onions before the ginger garlic burns.

  4. Sauté the onions until they turn golden from pink, and then add 1 tsp of the spice blend. Stir to combine and then keep stirring and cooking until the onions are caramelized. You can add splashes of water if anything sticks to the pan.

  5. Add tomatoes and cook until tomatoes are soggy. Add some salt, stir, cover and cook for 5-7 minutes on low to medium heat. On opening, mix again and you will notice oil separating on the sides. Add the marinated chicken to the masala cooking in the pan.

  6. Start braising the chicken along with the onion-tomato masala and the spiced yogurt. Keep tossing the pieces and let everything combine well. This will take about 10 minutes. Add 1 more tsp of the spice blend and then sauté again for 3-4 minutes.

  7. Add warm water depending on how much gravy you want, and ensure that the water totally covers the chicken pieces. Add salt and give a mix. Cover and cook for 15 minutes. On opening the pan, you will notice oil beginning to float on top. Now add ghee and cinnamon, and cover the pan again and cook for 5 more minutes or until the chicken is tender and cooked.

  8. Open and let the gravy simmer uncovered for a minute or two. Turn off heat and let it rest for a few minutes before serving. Garnish with coriander and serve hot!


 

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