Tuesday, 6 July 2010


My sister in law's family hails from Kerala in southern India and as such we have a particular fondness for Keralan food in our house. I find southern Indian to be a somewhat lighter, fresher cuisine with more tropical flavours than your classic north Indian curries - using much more coconut, mangos and seafood and the like in their dishes. We have a fantastic vegetarian Keralan restaurant Rasa just down the road from us which we visit fairly regularly (and I would urge you to do so too). Their Masala Dosa is fantastic and would have to be one of my favourite Indian dishes - I plan to make my own Masala Dosa very soon in the future. Watch this space.

But today I felt like making something a bit different. I looked in our cupboard and saw our extensive and largely under-utilised Indian spice rack. I searched around and stumbled across a few great sites including the excellent Sama.in which were great for recipe inspiration. I found a good recipe for a Theeyal which means ‘burnt dish’. Its a typical Keralan dish featuring burnt coconut, and is usually dark brown in colour. It gets its colour from browning of coconut and also from the inclusion of tamarind. 

Now strictly speaking the classic form of this dish is a vegetarian one (as are most Keralan dishes) typically cooked with eggplant, bitter melon or even baby onions. I also found a few versions with prawns / shrimp. My issue was that I had some chicken I needed to use. Not entirely authentic I know but chicken theeyal it was.

I merged two recipes which seemed pretty similar and had good descriptive methods. Both were for ulli theeyal from Samai.in and from Salkaraam.com

Chicken Theeyal (Kerala style burnt coconut tomato chicken curry)

  • 2 onions (1 finely diced, 1 halved and sliced)
  • 500g diced chicken breast (or thighs)
  • 1 x 400g tinned tomatoes
  • 2 tsp tamarind paste (or small to medium tarmarind if you can get it)
  • 1 cup coconut (grated preferably or soaked desiccated) 
  • 1 finely diced green chilli
  • 1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • Handful curry leaves
  • 1-2 tsp chilli powder
  • 1tsp  coriander powder
  • 1 tsp masala powder
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
  • Oil (coconut if you have it)
  • Salt to taste
For tempering (hot oil spice infusion):
  • 2 tsp mustard seeds 
  • Dried red chilli if available
  • Curry leaves - a sprig
Heat oil and fry your diced onions until they go golden. Add coconut, fennel seeds and curry leaves and stir well until coconut turns brown. Add remaining spices (dont accidentally add your tempering mustard seeds like I did - keep them for them end) and stir for few seconds only. Remove from pan and allow to cool. Blend this mix into a masala paste by slowly adding up to one cup of water until its a thick brown paste. 

Heat some more oil add chicken, diced green chilli and sliced onions. Allow to sizzle for a few minutes until starting to brown. Add your masala paste and sizzle in that for a few minutes. Add tomatoes and tamarind paste (If you are lucky enough to find a real tamarind - soak it in water then add a cup of the tamarind water at this point). 

Assuming you added the tamarind paste, add some more water to your sauce if it is too thick. Simmer 5 - 10 mins. Season to taste. Remove from heat and place into serving dish. 

Finally you need heat some more oil (few tea spoons). Add mustard seeds (they should start to 'pop') and add your curry leaves. Also add your dry red chilly if you have it. Allow to sizzle and infuse for a brief moment then pour this onto the curry. 

Serve with white rice. YUM!


Dom said...

great recipe, will be giving it a try in the near future - i love kerelan food, great flavours!

Anonymous said...

We love spicy food but Keralan is new to me. I shall definitely be trying this - I actually have everything on the list in my cupboard! Thank you.
'Meanderings through my Cookbook'

vineeth said...

hi there, nice recipe but your comment in which you stated "the classic form of this dish is a vegetarian one (as are most Keralan dishes)" is ironic since we keralites eat more non veg than most of india.you would not find beef so easily available in other parts of india,add to that the mouth watering sea food recipes,lamb dishes.
Anyway thanks for this recipe i am a keralite and a day without non veg makes me go crazy.Nice photos by the way too,my mouths already watering.

Nick P said...

Vineeth - thanks for your insight! Having only experienced Kerelan food second hand and outside of India I defer your good graces about Kerela's vegetarian / meat loving status :)

This perception may have been formed by a predominance of vegetarian kerelan restaurants in my area and a cooking program I once saw. I would love to go there one day to eat the real deal!

Glad you like the dish :)

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