Spiced Coconut & Cashew Chicken

Conventional wisdom about entertaining at home indicates that practice is key to being a successful cook and host. There are unending volumes written on the subject filled with well-heeled advice that stress on planning menus, organizing your ingredients and having practice runs well in advance of the big event. They especially espouse caution when trying out new recipes. There is talk of the importance of being a relaxed host or hostess, and how you are unlikely to be one if you have been channeling the Road Runner right up the moment your guests arrive. All this running around is simply not done, they tell us earnestly.

Do you do everything you are told? Yeah, me neither. I used to, once, a long time ago. Back then, there was an implied threat of getting rid of reading time. But now? There isn’t a chance in hell I’ll do what I’m told. No way, no how.

That’s right. I listen to own tune, chart my course, pave my road. I’m a rebel, baby!!

Sigh. Who am I kidding? Let me proceed to ruin that rather defiant impression I just painted of myself with this carefully annotated bullet-point list…
– Practice might make perfect, but I’m far from…
I’ll take inspiration over perfection in the kitchen any day. I’m at my most inspired when I’m excited about something. I’m get excited about new ingredients or new recipes. Nothing could drag me away from the kitchen when I’ve got either or both. We-ell, maybe the next episode of Doctor Who, but meandering back to the point. 
I’m ecstatic when I’m playing the mad doctor in the kitchen. This may be the reason why little of what I make tastes the same way twice. That is also the reason for this blog, but it’s a story you’ve read before.

– I have excellent victims crash test dummies for friends.
Friends, colleagues, neighbours, semi-strangers have offered up their services to taste whatever I may cook in the name of this blog. What a fantastic bunch of people to know. Their sacrifice ensures I can entertain without any of the guilt that is associated with the subjecting others to the trial and error process.

– That critic in my head doesn’t physically exist.
There was a time, in the beginning that I worried about failed recipes. I fell over myself apologizing for the tiniest thing that went wrong. Then I woke up and realized I wasn’t trying out for Top Chef and none of my friends even remotely resemble Tom Colichio. (A couple of them do resemble Padmalakshmi, but she doesn’t scare me.) They also don’t know or care if I forgot the nigella seeds in the mutton curry unless I make them.

– Multiplying is easy. Multiplying ingredients is hard.
I respect caterers. Cooking large batches of food for large numbers of people while losing none of the flavour is a difficult thing to master. It is also tough to try to practice when you are attempting to entertain large groups on a budget. You don’t want to be heartily sick of the food you will enthusiastically be serving your guests even before they have arrived.

When all else fails, there’s always pizza.
The point of entertaining is spending time in good company over some good food. It is important you enjoy all the time spent in preparing for this too. Let’s face it, if this was a huge chore to you, you would be a grudging host, which is much worse than a harried but happy one. So whatever gets you to enjoy the process, not just the outcome – that is what you want to do. In my case, if this means I greet my guests at the door covered in flour because of my spontaneous dealings with their dinner, so be it. Dinner and a show, that will be a memory. Even if I do burn everything, there is some great pizza in SF. We’ll get some and laugh about the night. This is where not being a perfectionist in the kitchen really comes in handy.

The only thing needed for this spontaneous thing to work is that you do need to have some idea of how you want out of your dish to turn out. In keeping with my entertaining tenets, I pulled this chicken curry together for a few friends last week. All I started with was knowing we wanted chicken curry and a vague memory of my mother’s chicken curry which I love. As it turns out, this wasn’t anything like mom’s chicken curry. It had a different flavour which seemed to evolve as the curry rested. Our friends loved it at dinner and it was even better for lunch later in the week, scooped over some couscous. The gravy was rich and glossy with not a drop of cream. It’s all about the onions and the coconut.

Spiced Coconut & Cashew Chicken

Source: Own recipe
10 – 12 servings

Chicken –  2-1/2 pounds, cubed into 1 inch pieces
Red Onion – 1 large or 2 small, diced
Tomato – 1 large or 2 small, diced
Garlic paste – 2 tbsp
Ginger paste – 1-1/2 tbsp
Coconut milk – 1 can
Cashew nuts – a handful, toasted
and unsalted
Mint – 2 large handfuls of leaves
Rosemary – 3 tbsp of fresh leaves
Cilantro – 1 large handful of stalk and leaves
Oil – 1/4 cup (Grapeseed or similar)
Salt to taste
Amchur – 1/4 tsp
Dhana-jeera powder – 2 tsp

Black cardamom – 3
Whole pepper – 8
Clove – 5
Bay Leaves – 3
Cinnamon sticks – 2
Poppy seeds – 2 tsp
Anise seed -2 tsp
Dried red Dundicut chillies – 6

– Place a dutch oven or similar heavy-bottomed pot with a fitted lid on just under medium high.
– Dry roast everything listed under spices in the pot for a few minutes, stirring to prevent burning, until you can smell the warm aroma of the spice.
– Add the oil to the spices in the pot. Add the diced onion & ginger and garlic pastes. Fry until the onion is quite browned but not completely caramelized, about 20 minutes or so.
– Add the tomatoes and fry until thoroughly softened and the oil begins to separate. Stir often.
– Take the pot off the heat. Once cool enough to handle, place contents of the pot in a food processor or blender.
– Add the rosemary, mint and cilantro and a half cup of water and blend into a thick puree. Pour back into pot.
– Add the chicken pieces to the pot.  Toss them in the puree to coat. Add the amchur and dhana-jeera powder. Fry for a few minutes.
– Add the coconut milk to the pot, along with about two cups of water. Stir to mix, then turn up the heat and bring to a boil. Season with salt as needed.
– In a separate grinder, pulse the cashews until they are coarsely powdered. Once the chicken comes to a boil, add in the powdered cashews. Stir to incorporate into a smooth gravy.
– Boil for two minutes or so, then turn the heat down to just under medium high.
– Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and let simmer for about 35 to 40 minutes.

Serve over some steamed rice or along with some bread or chapatis.

Cook’s notes:
The important components to  good curry are toasting your spices and well-browned onions. That’s your solid start. From there, you are free to take any direction you choose. Spicy, sour and sweet, I built layers into this curry hoping for a depth of flavour and was rewarded with a chicken curry redolent in spice with a wonderful hot kick. Kick up the number of chillies if you want more heat. Replace the amchur (dried mango powder available in Indian stores) with lemon if you like. You’ll still have a fabulous dish.

I used light coconut milk and added a can full of water. The water can be adjusted as you choose to thin out the gravy if you like. If it’s too thin, allow it to simmer uncovered until the gravy thickens. The chicken will simmer into the softest chunks that yield easily to a fork. This chicken is comfort food on a crisp fall day.

This is me, in my kitchen, doing things the way I know how to. What is it you do?


  1. Vijitha

    Hello Sharmila,
    I stumbled upon your blog from Prerna’s post. I am so glad that I found your blog. I am loving the name – cheeky chilly. Sounds cute 🙂 I love anything with coconut and this chicken recipe is similar to what my grandmom makes. This will taste so good with just steamy rice and yogurt. BLISS!!!

    • Sharmila

      Hi Vijitha,
      So glad you visited. Yes just this and rice, it is fantastic. I used to eat my mom’s version with just rice and slivered onions covered with salt and lemon juice. I love curries.

  2. Thomas Strome

    This is the first time that I saw a curry that looks like this one. Just a question about making curry, does coffee suit the dish itself? I’ve been wondering if I could add a little bit of coffee.

    • Sharmila

      I’ve had some great curries that had a bit of espresso in them. This one may not be the best candidate for it, but if you do try it that way, let me know.

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