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Malay-style Chicken and Eggplant Curry

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Curry powder is one ingredient you won’t find in this brightly flavored, deeply satisfying curry.

Curry powder is made from a blend of spices, and there can be at least as many variations on it as there are kitchens throughout India and South-east Asia. Some curries, like this one, are made on the spot with individual seasonings. The word “curry” derives from a Tamil word for sauce, and it covers a lot of ground.

The vibrant yellow we in the U.S. associate with curry powder comes from turmeric, a root – or, more properly, a rhizome – related to ginger. Turmeric  is warm and earthy, a neat counterpoint to the acidity and heat in this Malaysian-style curry that I adapted from a beef dish in the Best-Ever Curry Cookbook by Mridula Baljekar (Hermes House, 2003), a lovely book that taught me about the uses of fresh turmeric. If you can find fresh turmeric where you are, great!

Be careful not to spill turmeric juice or powder on anything you don’t want to stay bright yellow for a long time; remember that this powerful coloring agent is the traditional dye for Buddhist monk’s robes.

Skip directly to the recipe for Malaysian chicken curry with eggplant

Another ingredient of note in this dish is fresh lemon grass, available at Asian groceries, or substitute powdered. I got mine from my neighborhood farmers’ market. Lemon grass is subtly citrussy and wonderful, but too tough to chew, so don’t slice it into little bits; leave it in a few large pieces and then remove at the end of cooking.

You can find tamarind pulp at Asian groceries, also. Tarmarind is fruity and tart.

I traded the cookbook’s choice of cooking oil — vegetable oil — for virgin coconut oil. Coconut oil is extraordinarily healthful and can be found in the health food aisle. Look for a minimally processed brand like Nutiva, that’s made simply by chopping freshly harvested coconuts and squeezing out the oil. Nutiva is the brand I buy; it’s delicately fragrant and is marvelous in cooking. I’m lucky enough to be able to find it at a local grocery store, although sometimes I order it from my online vitamin source, iHerb. Coconut oil has been used for food since time immemorial in regions where the coconut palm grows. Vegetable oil, which is highly processed, on the other hand, came on the scene in the industrial 20th century. No way it could have appeared in a South-east Asian household more than a few decades ago.

The cookbook’s recipe calls for frying the eggplant in vegetable oil, and didn’t call for salting. I find eggplant fries better after the cells have been broken down and some water removed through the salting process. Also, I realized that, since I was going to make gribenes anyway, for a separate snack, out of the chicken skin, I would have a nice hot pan of schmaltz all ready to go. So instead of storing the schmaltz, cleaning the pan and heating some more coconut oil, as I had been planning, I just tossed the eggplant into the schmaltz. At around the same time I realized the gribines would make a nice crispy topping instead of the recipe’s direction to make the the crispy browned onions found on another page of the cookbook,

Malay-style chicken and eggplant curry
The recipe

Ingredients
1 large or 2 medium or 3 small eggplants, sliced in half-rounds 1/8-inch thick
2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil
2 onions, sliced in half-moons
3 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
2 inches fresh ginger, grated fine (unpeeled)
1 teaspoon turmeric, or 1 inch fresh turmeric, grated fine
1 teaspoon salt plus 2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 hot red chili pepper, seeded and minced
1 stalk lemon grass, cut in three or four long pieces
1 can (14-ounce ) coconut milk
3 pounds chicken thighs, legs or leg quarters, skin removed and set aside
Skin from the chicken, cut with scissors into 1-inch by 2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon tamarind pulp

Equipment that bears mentioning
Colander
Cast-iron skillet
Dutch oven
Spatter guard (cover skillet while frying)

In a nutshell
Fry onion, garlic, ginger and turmeric in coconut oil. Add skinned chicken parts, two teaspoons salt, black pepper, chili pepper and coconut milk. Remove meat from bone when chicken is tender. Fry chicken skin, cut into little rectangles, in a skillet and remove gribenes (crispy skin bits) from rendered schmaltz. Fry eggplant (salted, rinsed and squeezed) in the schmaltz, and stir into the stew. Add soaked and strained tamarind pulp. Serve with gribenes on top.

Detailed recipe
Line a colander with some of the eggplant slices and sprinkle with salt. Make another layer of eggplant and salt again. Continue until you’ve added all the eggplant. This should take about one teaspoon of salt.

In a heavy saucepot, Dutch oven or stew pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When oil is hot enough that water sizzles when flicked from your lightly damped fingers, add onions, garlic, ginger and turmeric. Sautee until onions are beginning to brown and the cooking ingredients release a rich aroma.

Add chicken, two teaspoons salt, black pepper, chili pepper and coconut milk. Cover. Bring to a boil and then turn heat down to the lowest possible simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the chicken is tender enough to come off the bone easily. Using forks or a pair of tongs and a fork, push the meat off the bones. Use the fork to shred the meat. Discard the bones. Remove the pieces of lemon grass and discard.

Soak the tamarind pulp in 1/2 cup water. Let set a few minutes. Squeeze the pulp so that you create a slurry. Pour the slurry through a strainer into the curry. Discard the seeds left behind in the strainer.

Meantime, arrange the rectangles of chicken skin in a cast iron or other heavy skillet. Set on medium to medium-low heat. When the skin has released its fat, and has crisped and fried in it, remove the bits (calledgribenes in Jewish cookery) to a heat-proof bowl. Turn the heat up to medium high. Rinse and squeeze excess moisture from the eggplant, and fry it in the skillet in batches. As the batches brown, remove them and add them to the pot of chicken and curry sauce.

Serve over rice, unless you’re low-carbing. (I like basmati with this type of dish, if I’m having rice.) Top with the crispy gribenes.

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