Traditional Chicken Vindaloo | Granny Knows Best
Any half serious cook has at least one distinct memory of learning to cook in the early days. One unforgettable experience that stands out amongst all the rest... One particular dish that has left an indelible mark in their culinary journey.
And for me, it's the three-generational cooking experience that I was lucky to be a part of... preparing our family's delicious Chicken Vindaloo... and learning that there's more to cooking than strictly following a recipe.
This was over 20 years ago when I barely knew how to hold a knife. Under the tutelage of my grandmother (Head Chef Merlyn) and my Aunty Thelma (Sous Chef), I (Apprentice and Kitchen assistant) was embarking on my rite of passage to womanhood by attempting to learn to cook.
|My granny and her first four children. My dad is the first of eight and upfront in white.|
It would be a few more years before Aunty Thelma arrived on the scene, the last of eight.
(Photo: circa 1950)
So what is Vindaloo?
The Indian Vindaloo is an adaptation of the Portuguese 'Carne de Vinha d'Alhos' dish which means meat with wine and garlic in Portuguese. Variations of this dish can be found all over the world from Madeira and Brazil to Mozambique, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and even India- wherever the Portuguese had travelled and left a bit of their culture behind.
|Mosaic in Belem, Portugal, showing the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century to the west coast of India during the Age of Discovery.|
In the Portuguese preparation, the meat is stewed in wine vinegar, garlic and spices. But in India, some form of regional vinegar is the chosen substitute for wine vinegar.
Popularly prepared along the western coast of India in Goa, Kerala and the Konkan region, it's not uncommon to find subtle variations in taste due to the different regional ingredients used. Palm feni might be used in Goa and coconut vinegar in Kerala, but the basis of any Indian Vindaloo is typically the same.
Old school cooks would start by roasting the whole spices to release their flavor before grinding it all down into a fine paste on the grinding stone. Quite an involved process that would have had me give up on my cooking classes before even starting.
So, not to deter a budding cook such as myself, my grandmother and aunt decided to adapt their traditional culinary methodology and teach me the easier version of this dish instead... using pre-ground dry spice powders.
So what's the bedrock of an Indian Chicken Vindaloo?
Getting down to brass tacks:
1. It's TANGY thanks to the vinegar.
2. It's THICK. Pull out your knife and … your handkerchief because you're going to chop a lot of onions...finely. That's what forms the base of a nice thick gravy. Yes, a lot of tears will be shed on this dish, but it's definitely worth it.
3. It's RED. Chili powder and tomatoes give this dish a rich, red color. Don't be fooled by the color. Just because it's red, it doesn't mean its very spicy. In fact, the vinegar and tomatoes temper the spice level. For a brighter, redder gravy with less heat, use Kashmiri chili powder instead of regular chili powder.
4. And it has a SPECIAL INGREDIENT that distinguishes it from other chicken curries. And that's mustard powder. Not seeds, but pale yellow mustard powder. Mustard powder is not typically used in other vindaloo preparations like pork vindaloo. However, it's a must for a chicken vindaloo.
Flash back to the kitchen in 1999:
If there's one thing that I learned that day is that:
A seasoned cook does not blindly follow a recipe.
They rely more keenly on their senses instead.
That was the modus operandi of both my grandmother and my aunt. That day in the kitchen, twenty years ago, we did follow a written recipe... but not to the letter, not to the gram and not to the drop.
So, as I bumbled along, washing onions and garlic before cutting them...Aunty Thelma exclaiming in disbelief, "Oh my goodness! Did you wash the whole onions and garlic already? How will you peel them now?"
And as I chopped onions at a dismally slow pace, fingers and nails becoming unsuspecting casualties in the process, my grandmother would come by to see how progress was being made and offer words of encouragement.
After Sous Chef Thelma had fried the onions, Head Chef Granny would come by to inspect. "A little longer," she'd say. "See how the onions are still translucent. They need to become more goldy brown."
And later she would taste the simmering curry, eyes closed savoring the aroma and proclaim, "Needs a splash more of vinegar, a dash more of salt."
And while Kitchen Assistant Me was trying to scribble down these adjustments to the recipe (what's the equivalent of a 'splash' and a 'dash' in teaspoon measures anyway ??), I'd get gently reminded to use my senses, to pay attention to how things looked, to focus on the smell and the taste rather than the recipe book and the kitchen timer.
Easier said than done for a rookie!
In the kitchen now- in 2021
I've made this recipe countless times in the last 20 years. Each time it gets better and better. I've learned to follow my eyes and nose and trust my taste buds while cooking.
The recipe below is the one that we followed years ago, with a few of my additions. I've included approximate cooking times and a few helpful hints for novice cooks who may be just starting out like I once was years ago.
Cooking and eating are such subjective experiences. All I can say is, use this recipe as a framework and don't be afraid to rely on your senses.... and then adjust this recipe to suit your own taste.
Want it hotter? Want it redder? Do you think it needs a splash more of vinegar? A dash more of salt?
Go for it and make it your own!
Chicken Vindaloo Recipe
- In 5 tablespoons of hot oil, fry the chopped onions for approximately 15-20 minutes on medium heat. The onions are fried sufficiently when the sides of the pan turn shiny and oily and the onions have turned golden brown (but not crispy and dark brown). See picture below.
- Add the masala paste to the fried onions and a splash of water if required to prevent the masala from burning.
- Add the tomato paste and fry for about 10 minutes until completely macerated and oil starts coming out onto the sides of the pan. See picture below.
- Add the chicken, mix well and fry lightly.
- Add water to almost cover the chicken. Add salt. Cover and let it cook on medium heat.
- After 15 minutes, add sliced potatoes. Cover and cook for another 20-25 minutes until the chicken is cooked (The chicken is cooked when the chicken is pierced and juices run clear).
- Add more salt and vinegar (approximately 4 teaspoons of vinegar) to taste.