Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kerala Chicken Fried in Browned Onions for Hanukkah

With Hanukkah around the corner (it starts at sundown December 20th) I thought I would share a
recipe from the very small Jewish community in Cochin, Kerala in South India. Hanukkah is about oil and while the chicken in this recipe is fried, it is in melted browned onions not a lot of oil.

To eat in India is to taste the layers of history as in this chicken dish, a specialty from the Jewish community of Cochin (now Kochi), Kerala. Jews have been in India for a long time, believed to have come in several waves, the first arriving after the destruction of King Solomon’s temple ( King Solomon had commercial contact with a kingdom along the Malabar Coast of South India). Many Jewish merchants were involved in the spice trade and settled in Cranganore, known as Shingly in the medieval Jewish world. This establishment was known in Jewish communities outside India and more Jewish merchants arrived, helping bring prosperity to the kingdom. The Hindu ruler, Sri Bhaskara Ravi Varman granted the leader of the Jewish community, Joseph Rabban dominion of a village and made him a prince, with all the rights of the ruling families of Hindu kingdoms. The charter was written on copper plates, probably dating from the 10th century, now preserved in the Cochin Paradesi synagogue—the first Jews who arrived in King Solomon’s time are called Malabari, while the ones who arrived at different times from the Middle East, Spain and Eastern Europe are known as Paradesi. Both groups claimed the prince was from their community. Just like Hindus, the Cochin Jews created their own caste system, with freed slaves who arrived with merchants having the lowest ranking, although all are Sephardic whether they have Iberian roots or not. Most of the history of the Cochin Jews is documented in a book called The Last Jews of Cochin co-authored by my Miami Beach neighbors Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldberg, a husband and wife scholar and journalist team. This chicken recipe is from Glennis Salem and was taught to them by her when they lived in Cochin for a year learning about Indian kosher food and integrating into the small close-knit community. They arrived just in time for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and stayed through the cycle of festivals including Hanukkah, living in an Old Dutch colonial house on Synagogue Lane with Raymond Salem, a bachelor with plenty of space (the majority of the Cochin Jews have emigrated over the years to Israel). The couple gained weight as much of their research was spent happily engaged in conversation around dinner tables—and whenever they dropped in on anyone, food was brought out and could not be refused. This chicken cooked in onions became a favorite. It is very simply spiced with cloves, cardamom, and star anise sizzled in coconut oil with garlic and onions. The onions are cooked down in two steps, first sautéed, then covered and sweated over low heat until they darken and begin to melt. The chicken is cooked with the onion and spice mixture with a liberal addition of crushed red pepper flakes adding heat. The chicken slowly browns, cooked until tender and saturated in the sweet, sharp perfume of cloves. This is a dish that is better the next day, when the warm anise flavors develop, one reason it is a good dinner party dish, as it can be cooked ahead. It won’t look as good, but be reassured the flavor is deeply delicious. Just sprinkle with lots of fresh chopped cilantro just before gently heating serving.


One 3 to 4 pound skinless chicken cut in pieces
4 tablespoons coconut oil (or olive oil)
10 green cardamom pods
10 whole cloves
Half a star anise pod, broken into several pieces (or 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds)
10 large or 20 small garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed and coarsely chopped
 3 large yellow onions (about 2 1/2 pounds), peeled, quartered and thinly sliced
1 generous teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt or sea salt crystals

PREPARING THE CHICKEN. Cut the breasts into 3 pieces, using a large sharp knife. Hack the thighs in half, through the joint. Cut the wings into 3 pieces at the joints. Place in a bowl and set aside.

BROWNING THE ONIONS. Heat the oil in a large wide nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the cloves, cardamom and star anise (or fennel seeds) and fry until the cardamom swells and starts to split and the oil is sizzling, about 2 minutes.  Add the garlic. Cook, stirring constantly and scraping up from the bottom of the pan with a slotted spoon, about 30 to 40 seconds, being careful it doesn’t brown (or it will become bitter). Quickly add the onions and stir, scraping up the garlic from the bottom of the pan and mingling it in with the onions.  Continue stirring and scraping up fairly frequently until most of the water released has dried up and the onions become a sticky mass, and are starting to turn a very pale golden color, about 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until the onions are a soft caramel brown mass, about 15 minutes, checking once or twice and stirring.

ADDING AND FRYING THE CHICKEN. Push the onions to the sides of the pan; increase the heat to medium-high and add the chicken. Sprinkle in the salt. Scrape up the onions with the slotted spoon and scatter over the chicken pieces. Cook until the flesh changes from glossy pinkish to milky white, turning several times with the onions, about 6 to 7 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until the chicken is coated in the brown onion paste and brownish all over, about 40 minutes, checking once or twice to stir (no need to add water unless you want gravy). Transfer to a serving dish and serve garnished with cilantro.

Happy Holidays!

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