Friday 18 May 2012

Chicken Chettinad

A few weeks ago, I was browsing through a few of the recipes I collected from my family. When I was back in India, I got into a habit of collecting recipes of the dishes that my mum and family cooked for us, and I also made it a point to get all the recipes that I could from my grandmothers as well. My grandmothers are quite elderly, and very often don't remember exactly how to make a recipe, even though they are able to tell me how it should taste and what the flavours are. In which case, I have to clarify several times with my mum and aunts to make a certain dish, and the ingredients for it. It's an interesting process for sure, almost like a jigsaw and when the pieces all fit, its a really great feeling of recreating a dish that predates me :)

Chicken Chettinad

That said, this dish wasn't one of those kinds. This recipe is an Indian classic, a fiery, rich South Indian curry, that most Indians are familiar with. Chicken Chettinad is a dish from the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu, and is characterised by its predominant notes of fennel, star anise and chilli. It has a gorgeous ruby red colour, and nuanced flavours, and with its creamy coconut-spice flavours, its a dish that I keep coming back to when I want a special dinner.

Every household in South India will probably have its own recipe for this dish. Mine comes from my little sister Carol, who is a really good cook as well. I believe she got it from one of our neighbours, who got it from one of her friends, whose family is Tamilian. I love all these crazy connections in Indian families, but I can vouch for the fact that they sure do produce some lovely, quirky recipes.

Chicken Chettinad

I had to rewrite this recipe to make it more accessible, because, as is often the case in Indian recipes, a lot of the quantities are pretty arbitarily handed down. A pinch of this, and a handful of that, and a cup of no discernibly quantity of another thing. I am assuming that this is because each family would like a certain taste to their food, and this affects the way they hand out or record their own recipes. Interesting, sure, helpful, not so much.
But that has forced me to revisit several of my childhood recipes, and in doing so, I discover whole new worlds of taste and flavour. This chicken chettinad, for example. I have browsed around the internet, but I noticed that many things that are standard in online recipes seem to be missing from this one. I actually love the flavour combination in my sister's recipe, so I decided not to tinker with it very much, and the only thing I did was to adjust quantities so that I could easily measure them.

As for the flavour, well, I can only say that its South India in a curry. And if you've ever been to India, you will know exactly what I mean :) Book that holiday now!

Chicken Chettinad


1 kg chicken, cut into bite sized pieces (or use 4 - 6 chicken thighs, cut into two pieces each)
1 - 2 tablespoons coconut oil (or any other oil, except extra virgin olive oil)
Around 8 - 10 curry leaves
1 large onion, diced
1 large tomato, diced
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon hot cayenne pepper (or to taste)
Salt to taste
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 lemon, to squeeze over

Spice Paste:

1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole peppercorns
4 cloves
A 3 inch piece of cassia bark
1 whole star anise
7 mild long red chillis
4 cloves garlic
250 ml coconut milk + about 50 ml extra, if desired


In a hot heavy pan, toast the whole spices for the spice paste one by one, until fragrant. Let cool, then transfer to a blender along with the garlic and coconut milk. Blend to a very fine paste.

Place the oil in a pan over a medium heat. When hot, add the curry leaves and fry for about 30 seconds. Add the diced onion, and fry together for about 5 - 7 minutes, until the onion starts to brown around the edges.

Add the tomatoes and fry a few more minutes, until the tomatoes have softened.

Add the ground spice paste, turmeric and cayenne powder, and fry for another 4 - 5 minutes, until the raw smell from the spices disappears. Season with a little salt.

Add the chicken pieces to this masala and bring to a simmer.

Lower the heat and let the curry simmer for 15 - 20 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Taste and adjust seasoning. Sprinkle over the sugar and stir.

Bring back the curry to a boil, and simmer rapidly, until you are left with a slightly dryish curry. This depends on your taste, you can make this with a thick sauce too, if you wish. If you want it with a thick sauce, then add the remaining 50 ml coconut milk at this point.

Readjust seasoning, and squeeze over the juice of half a lemon, or to taste, and serve. This dish goes well with rice, pulao, biriyani or roti.


  1. This ones a classic alright..Spicy & rich & delish!! Loved the pics :)
    Prathima Rao
    Prats Corner

  2. This sounds amazing, all my favourite flavours too.

    Have pinned for another day, thanks.

  3. thanks for linking this in to Food on Friday

  4. Well, if this is the taste of South India, then it is a must try! I need to try more of southern non-vegetarian dishes, and this is one that I have heard mentioned often.

  5. This looks fantastic and sounds really delicious, I am looking forward to trying it x

  6. It is amazing how our Grans or Moms dole out the recipes. Do this , then add some that, a pinch of this, few of that and cook . and yet they turn out absolutely delicious when we make them from these instructions. I know for a blog you have to quantify a recipe, but imagine if we could just somehow translate the recipe in a bit of this and that and everyone knew just what to do... Lovely recipe and I do agree it is very different from any Chicken chettinad recipe I have come across.

  7. Definitely my kind of dish. Sounds wonderful.

  8. Michelle,
    i tried this recipe.
    i will only say - ROMBA NALLA IRRUKKU
    i toned down the spice level a bit to suit our requirements.
    the gravy had a rich colour and texture.
    all in all a great recipe.

  9. Prathima, thank you. I love it. And since my husband and daughter don't eat meat, I can make it spicy as I like :)

    Debs, thanks and I hope you enjoy it.

    Carole, I did. Thanks for the invite!

    Anita, it is indeed! Hot, anisey, fennely and coconutty. Everything you smell when you get off the plane in Bangalore :)

    Mrs. P, thank you and do let me know how you like it.

    Ansh, exactly!! So many days I have wished I can just copy and paste all the recipes my mum sends me. No rhyme or reason or measurements :) Many times I have had to call and ask her, whose handful ma? Mine, mai's or yours :)

    Phil, ta! I hope you enjoy it. Its such a lovely combination of flavours, and fairly unusual for Indian curries too.

    Usha, muchly muchly thank you for the feedback :) So chuffed that you made and liked it. Its definitely one of my favourite dishes!!

  10. This is one Indian dish I don't think I've ever tried. It looks beautiful though. And it's 11:56pm and now I'm exceptionally hungry!

  11. at which stage should I add 250ml coconut milk ?

  12. Thanks for sharing this awesome indian food recipe with us.


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