The Healing Power of Chicken Curry

Today is the second Food, Love & Memories post, a bimonthly column devoted to the evocative connections between the heart, food & soul. We invite you to share your story+recipe for future columns. Currently we’re soliciting Ramadan stories, but welcome all submissions. More details here.
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I grew up in a happily carefree household, where my parents often chose to sacrifice perfection in the kitchen and the home in favor of a few more moments of fun with us kids.

I have fond memories of my childhood evenings when my father came home after a long day of work and sat in his favorite chair while soaking his feet in a tub of warm soapy water. My brother and I sat on the floor by his feet, fascinated by his amazing stories. While we were busy listening, my mother was doing almost all of the cooking, and what a great cook she was!

No visitor ever left our home without dinner, no matter the primary purpose of their visit. Dropping a book or other item off? Stay for dinner, it won’t take too long! Joining us for a Qur’an lesson? Can’t leave without dinner!

Our fridge and freezer seemed to have an endless supply of ingredients, which were crucial for those meals for ten or more guests. And on those rare occasions when our guests insisted that they couldn’t stay for a meal and forced my mother to relent, they would still be required to enjoy a cup of hot tea with a homemade pastry or cookie….or two. My mom managed all of the above quite effortlessly, all while giving my brother and me her full attention whenever we needed it.

My favorite of my mother’s dishes, by far, was probably also one of the simplest that she made. It was comfort food in its purest form. I still vividly remember when I was recovering from a particularly severe form of flu when I was a child.  After not being able to stomach much more than Jello for about a week, I finally acquiesced to my mother’s request to join them for dinner one night when she had made her chicken curry.

The aroma of my favorite dish slowly overpowered the unsettled feelings at the pit of my stomach. My slow cautious bites, were also my first step towards a full recovery. The flavor of the spiced chicken and rice was such a welcome change from the many days of bland food and liquids. To this day, there is nothing more delicious to me than chicken curry with lots of shorba, served over steamed rice with a chopped salad on the side.

I regret not spending more time with my mom in the kitchen, because I’m sure I would have been a better cook for it. It took me many years after I got married to start making chicken curry on a regular basis, because the end result just never quite measured up to hers.

After I lost my mother to cancer at the young age of 54, I realized that if I wanted to enjoy her simple creation, I would have to figure it out on my own. After some experimentation and improvisation, I came up with as close a replica as I could, all while trying to minimize the number of spices and ingredients required by the recipe. That’s how my mom cooked.  Despite only having a few ingredients on hand, everything she made was always delicious.

Over the years, this has become a favorite meal in my home too. I think that would make my mother very happy, if she were with us today.

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Chicken Curry

Serves 6

1 medium chicken, skinned and cut into pieces

¾ teaspoon chili powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon turmeric powder

Approx. 1 cup fresh diced tomatoes or ¾ can tomatoes

1 tablespoon crushed or minced garlic, (or 2 cloves fresh garlic)

¾ tablespoon crushed ginger

1/8 cup cooking oil

Fresh cilantro, 1 tablespoon, chopped (optional, for garnish).

Place all ingredients except oil in a wok or dutch oven. Add ½ cup water. Cover and cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally until chicken is tender, but not falling off the bone. Add 1/8 cup oil and increase heat. Fry on medium high heat, stirring constantly until the liquid dries up and the oil separates from the curry. Add a cup (or more) of water and boil vigorously until the soup thickens slightly. Garnish with finely chopped cilantro. Serve on a bed of steamed basmati rice.

Mina Khan is a mother of three and a family physician. She considers herself a citizen of the world, having lived in Europe, Asia and now the United States. She runs a small town medical practice with her husband of twenty years, in rural Alabama.  Her personal blog can be found at: khanfamilyoffive.blogspot.com.