Well, the name says it all.
But it might not be the name you expect.
Anyway, this is a chicken dish with, yes, you guessed it, chilli and it comes from the “royal” (well, I added the regal bit to it!!) kitchens of Mysore.
But what is not evident from the name, ‘Mysore chilli chicken’, is the process of creating this dish.
It is simple yet very skilled; it is hot but doesn’t burn, and it is tasty but not overly spiced.
This dish is ‘Carnatic’ music at its best, that is, to the taste buds!!
The dish is a creation of Vardarajan, who out of respect (or fear!!) was called “Anna” which means “big brother”. See, some of you won’t have expected that name to belong to a bloke!
Anna was a chef at the Chola Hotel in Madras, way back in the 70s and 80s, and what a chef he was.
But don’t let me do all the talking, folks.
I have pulled out a page from the ‘diary’ of Raman Natrajan who was a trainee in that hotel around the same time as Anna and he describes brilliantly what it was like working in the kitchens of the Chola Hotel and then he describes the dish itself!!
So, without further ado, let’s see what he wrote:
My first job in a professional kitchen was at The Chola Sheraton in Madras. I took a part-time job to work on the weekends. On my first day Chef Ramesh Babu walked me over to the Main Kitchen. I was to work in the prep kitchen next to the Indian kitchen. This was where you served your indenture in order to become an apprentice worthy of working in the main kitchen.
There was a never-ending procession of goods requisitioned out on numerous trolleys from the main storeroom that came into the prep kitchen first, for initial processing. For 12 hours a day, I stood there with my hands red and sore, peeling onions by the bagful and slicing them. My feet and back ached constantly and I was unable to answer back to any one who wanted to test my patience during those first few days. After two weeks I was moved to the Indian Kitchen.
In this small world of the Indian section, there was a smaller god, Chef Varadarajan, who by now must be in the great white kitchen in the sky. Everyone called him Anna (brother). Anna was a ‘Tamizhkaaran’ from Mysore (which means a Tamil from Mysore). He had about ten cooks and five apprentices and yes, I was again at the mercy of the whole team. It was here that I watched in wonder as Anna prepared a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, all day long, for the restaurant and banquets.
No one told you, showed you, or gave you handouts; you learnt by sight, taste, and smell to become proficient by doing a task over and over again and getting better and faster every time. We had thousands of marinated tandoori chicken pieces to put on seekhs (skewers). After this we stood in front of four hot tandoori ovens, soaked in sweat and we handed over these seekhs to the tandoori cooks who were experts on the tandoor. This was my first experience of real heat. I was aware that in 99 percent of the iterations of tandoori chickens out there, the light or dark red color was supplied by food dye. I was curious and asked Anna if he used food color in all the food that has some color added to it. Anna told me that he was going to show me something later.
In the Indian kitchen they made different gravies in large pots big enough to have a bath in! Still, as far as I was concerned, I was now being treated like a human being, at last, largely thanks to Anna who took me under his wing. When you work in the hotel you go to the staff kitchen for a meal, for you would not dare eat in the kitchen, at least not while the chef or sous-chefs were around. But most afternoons, after the meal service was done at around 2 p.m., the executive chef and his sous-chef would take a break. This is when the senior cooks make a special lunch for themselves. These were gems that one cannot find on any menu. The dishes were made with pure love and every day each chef outdid the other with his special dish.
One day Anna made a dish for the afternoon meal from his native Mysore. This was the day that Anna had said he’d show me something. And he did as promised; he showed me how to make a spectacular dish which he called “Mysore chilli chicken”. And what was even more amazing is that he was going to make it without adding any food color. Till today, I have searched online for this recipe and I have never found one that looked anything like his. It was bright orange/red and tasted divine. It came served with steamed rice. It was spicy, it was hot and it was pure Carnatic music on a plate!!
I will never forget Anna who showed me his mastery of cooking.
Food is like music. It should be relaxing, refreshing, and nourishing. Just like the music you love, it should inspire and move, exhilarate and excite. Flavors, colors, and smells should intermingle on your palate and raise the senses. For Anna the master, everything was easy, he was a smooth conductor and I learnt from him that cooking is like playing an instrument. It requires practice and respect; patience and a willingness to learn. You make mistakes, you try again, and you master your performance.
Thank you Anna for being one of my early Aachiriyars!!
Well folks, there you have it. Men after my own heart. Food cooked with skill, endless practise and passion.
So, what do we know about our friend Raman Natrajan?
Well, he started his career in Madras in the early 80s at the Chola Sheraton. I guess I was somewhere there around that time and that is how we met.
Time went by, as it tends to do . . . Raman joined the ITDC, I joined the Taj group of hotels.
Raman went to America to further his career in the hotel industry and I moved ‘Down Under’ to become a DESI cook. . .!
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Raman went on to work for the Sheraton Hotel as their Executive Chef in New Orleans, followed by a stint at the Renaissance Stanford in San Francisco, until 2004.
Today he heads the hotel operations of the Marriott Hotels in the US. This is no mean feat for someone who was groomed in the ‘hot’ kitchens of Madras under the tutelage of the great Anna!!
And without further ado, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, mouth-watering recipe itself.
Mysore Chilli Chicken
9 long dried red chilies (you can use either the Bedgi chilli from Mangalore or its similar Kashmiri chilli. If you use Kashmir add 1.5 tsp hot chilli powder)
8- 10 Tellicherry peppercorns
1 1/2 tbsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
I medium-sized cassia bark
2 1/2-inch pieces of ginger
1 kg chicken on the bone
For the sauce aka ‘kari’
2 1/2 tbsp ghee or vegetable oil
2 1/2 large onions, finely chopped
10 fresh curry leaves
Salt, to taste
2 medium-size tomatoes, chopped
2 tsp of lemon juice, to serve
1. Wash and cut the chicken into small pieces, drain till dry.
2. Grind all the masala ingredients to a fine paste, adding a little warm water.
3. Keep half the marinade (masala) aside for the sauce.
4. Marinate the chicken pieces in the remaining masala and set aside for 4 hours in the refrigerator.
5. In a large frying pan, heat the ghee/oil and fry the onions with the curry leaves and salt. Cook until the onions are light golden brown. Add the masala to the onions and cook until the oil leaves the sides of the pan.
6. Add the tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes, or till the tomatoes are cooked.
7. Remove the marinated chicken from the fridge, place in a saucepan, cover and cook in its own juices until cooked (this is similar to ‘braising’) Set aside to rest.
8. Drain the chicken juices (‘liquor’) into the sauce and add a cup of water, if required. Cook till oil leaves the pan. Sprinkle with lemon juice.
9. In another frying pan, heat enough oil to fry the cooked chicken pieces till caramelised and ‘bright red’! Drain and set aside.
Serve the Mysore chilli chicken along with the kari on top of steamed Basmati rice, with some crisp fried curry leaves (you’ll see “how to temper kari leaves” on the link!). (To make great steamed rice, click the link.)
And before I sign off folks, here are a few of Anna’s tips to remember when cooking this dish:
1. To get a bright color from the chillies (if Bediga or Kashmiri chillies are not available), soak them in warm water, do not split them. This allows the chilli to soak in the moisture and concentrates the colors. Discard the water and grind.
2. Tellicherry pepper is the best in the world and has a very strong aroma!
3. Braising the chicken and letting it rest in the juices lets the meat to tenderise , then when you fry it, the outside is crisp and the inside is still moist. The Chinese call it ‘twice cooked’.
4. Once the chicken is fried it may be added to the sauce, or alternately served separately (as I did) on top of the rice along with the kari.
Well, as for me, I would like to have the lot with no rice and no kari, just a glass (or two) of my favourite Mornington Peninsula Nazaaray Shiraz!!! You can have the rice and. . .
Anah Daata Suki Bhava!!