Chicken Curry in the Pakistani Manner (Murghi ka Saalan)

Currying Favour with the Portuguese

The great Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, King of the World (1592-1666), died in confinement, in Agra Fort, imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb. As he lay dying, he looked down from the balcony of the Musamman Burj tower at the pearlescent dome of the Taj Mahal he created for his beloved wife.

Shah Jahan’s reign marked an age of opulence; as a great patron of the arts and architecture, he commissioned the creation of intricate architectural wonders in present day Pakistan, such as the Wazir Khan Mosque, Lahore, built in seven years with its architecture influenced by the popular Thatta mosaic work of the 16th century…

…and the Shalimar Gardens, Abode of Bliss, eight years in the making, also in Lahore. Built in 1642, the garden boasted 410 fountains, emptying out into wide marble pools. Centred among the fountains, was an area created for musicians- a mahtabi; the moonlit gazebo. Into the night the tabla, sitar, sarod and sarangi would play.

Like the architectural splendours of this era, Shah Jahan’s Imperial Kitchens were known for their excesses, similar to those of his predecessors. Hundreds of dishes were prepared every day; decadent meat pilafs fragranced with jade-green pistachios, golden sultanas, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom were served to portray the glory of the Mughal Empire. Innovation and discovery of new dishes was encouraged, with chefs brought in from Persia, Central Asia, and the Ottoman Empire to create dishes encompassing all the different regions.

Who says fusion cuisine is a 20th century phenomenon?

Pastries and cakes were prepared in the European style by cooks previously enslaved by the Portuguese in Goa.

A little over a century after the arrival of Vasco da Gama on the shores of Calicut in May of 1498, the chili pepper- introduced to Goa by the Portugese- found its way into the Imperial Kitchens.*

I cannot imagine my world without the chili-pepper, thank you, Vasco da Gama.

A homemade curry without the fiery quality of the chili pepper is to me, insipid at best. That brick red chili pepper powder, as if by some form of alchemy, binds itself to the tomatoes, onions, garlic and ginger, creating a luscious, unctuous curry.  Whether you are from West Bengal, eating the curry and rice smothered with your fingertips, or from the Punjab, dipping into it with your light-as-air-chapati, or an Afghan-Pakistani like myself, dousing a steaming mound of Basmati rice with the curry, or from ‘Brum’ (Birmingham, UK) having it with pillowy naan and ‘a pint’ with your mates… you’re tucking into that unapologetically spicy curry because curry speaks one universal language for chili-heads.

This is the way I was taught to prepare it by Ami, my mother, who learnt it from Nani Ami, her mother. No fancy ingredients or masalas (spices) here, just some good techniques which were taught to me and a few good ingredients. The cardamom pods at the end add a subtle, lovely fragrance. Ami and I have made life easier for ourselves by using a blender, but you’re welcome to use a pestle and mortar a la grandmum.

I like to serve it with a kachumbar, a chopped salad of cucumber, tomatoes, onions, (feel free to omit the onions) and squirts of lime / lemon with some salt. The kachumbar adds another textural dimension with the acidity of the lime juice cutting nicely into the fat content of the curry.

I have tried to make this with less oil, but I feel you have to go the whole hog with a curry- use the 3 tbsps of oil and if not, have an omelette or salad for dinner instead. And make the curry the next day when you’ve done that 5k run.

*The exact date the chili made its way to the Northern plains of India is controversial. Some believe it was two centuries after Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut; and some say the chili pepper made its way up from Goa to the North during Shah Jahan’s reign.

Photo credit Wazir Khan Mosque: TMDTUBE
Photo Credit Shalimar Gardens: Flickr

Photo Credit Chilies: Wikipedia

Serves 4 with a side of Basmati rice or chapati , (a Pakistani whole-wheat flatbread).

Ingredients:
3 tbsp canola oil (or any other neutral oil like grapeseed or sunflower)
2 lbs chicken, (I use chicken breast with bone and ask my butcher to cut it into 3in pieces or you can use a whole chicken, jointed )
1 medium-sized onion, roughly chopped (this will be blitzed in the blender later, so don’t worry about cutting it perfectly)
2 garlic cloves, sliced thin (can substitute with 1 tsp garlic paste)
1 thumb-size knob of ginger, sliced thin (can substitute with 1 tsp ginger paste, if ginger not available, can omit)
28 oz / 400 ml can chopped tomatoes or tomato sauce (passata) or 4-6 large fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 1/2 tsp salt (adjust to taste)
pinch haldi (turmeric powder)
1 1/2 tsp red chili powder (I would start with 1/2 tsp) In fact, you can use red chili pepper flakes, dried Calabrian chilies, whole dried red dried chilies, fresh green chilies like thai bird, serrano or jalapeno- play around with any chili you have at hand.
1/2+1 1/2 cups water
2 cardamom pods

Preparation:
*Turn the heat to medium and place a heavy-bottomed pan, (I use a 6 qt stockpot) on the stove. To really bring out the nutty golden colour of the onions, it is preferable to not use a non-stick pan.
*Add oil and allow pan to heat up for 2 minutes.
*Add onions and saute till they start to turn golden.
*At this point, add the fresh garlic and ginger and continue to sauté.
*The onions will start to darken more, don’t worry, this is what will give the curry its dark, intense colouring. The garlic and ginger will also begin to caramelise at this point.
*This will take a total of 15 minutes.
*Add tomatoes, salt, chili pepper and turmeric and turn the heat to medium or medium-high, start to “fry” (bhuno) this mixture. Be careful, the tomato sauce may splatter, in that case, turn the heat down. It will take approximately 15-20 minutes.
*By the end of it, you should see the sauce has reduced and looks jammy.
*Let the mixture cool a bit and transfer the chunky ingredients with a slotted spoon, to a blender.
*Blitz it all to a smooth paste, add some water to the blender if you want to get all the sauce off the walls of the blender.
*Transfer mixture back to the pan.
*Add chicken pieces and 1/2 cup of water and turn the heat to medium-high.
*”Fry” (bhuno) the chicken till you start to see the oil separating from the sauce. This is an indication that it is almost done. This will take approximately 15-20 minutes and rigorous stirring.
*Add the remainder of the water- 1 1/2 cups and cardamom pods, turn the heat to low, cover with a lid and let it simmer for 20 minutes. The oil should have floated freely to the top of the curry by the end of it.
*Serve with a garnish of fresh chopped coriander/cilantro, (both leaves and sweet stems), kachumbar and chapati or Basmati rice
Note: If using garlic and ginger paste, add the paste once the onions have fully darkened, otherwise the paste will burn.

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Comments

  1. My music teacher (who is also a dear family friend) requested I cook murghi ka saalan for him, we share the punjabi connection. Your recipe is almost the same as my mom’s that I made her text to me. I find your blog the thesaurus of recipes, regular food as well as fine dining. Go Spice spoon.

  2. Hi,I’m 15 I had to cook since my mom wasn’t home. I loved your recipe for “Chicken Salan” specially because that’s exactly how my my mom make’s it. But, one difference I noticed was you didn’t add green chili and didn’t fry the chicken and my mom does that. Either way, thank you.

  3. Hey there. i Really like the way you have made what we call Chicken Curry or Murghi ka Salan, my mum makes it the same way but she also used sliced green chillies. However your dish looks absolutely delicious.

    Food Connection Pakistan

  4. i tried to implement this recipe but as i tasted the curry its a bit bitter… :( i think i burnt the onions..my friend says its fine..anywayz thanx 4 da recipe!

  5. Hi, yeah I was desprate and I wanted to cook somthing with chicken so I came to this website and I’ll tell you this is by far the WORST dish I have ever made I mean it look like it’s dead and it smells like dead chicken. Don’t get me wrong I followed the recipe to the ‘T’ but it was just so horrible and the worst part was that I wasted all that ingredent sigh the worst

    Thank you

    • @Riku Sorry to hear about your experience – not all recipes work for everyone. May I remind you rather sternly that this is my personal website and therefore some courtesy is required? Next time I will not publish your comment unless it is polite (you are free to criticise, but not in such an obnoxious manner).

    • Riku this is the simplest chicken curry recipe I’ve ever read and is nigh on impossible to get wrong. May I suggest the end result may have something to do with your skills in the kitchen rather than the actual recipe?

  6. Just made this and it’s delicious. Thanks for the recipe.
    I added a cinnamon stick and also I didn’t bhunn the meat- just added it to the pot with water and cooked for 40 min.

    • @Ballal Thank you – it’s lovely to read / see how we can take a recipe and make it our own – that’s the beauty of cooking :) The cinnamon stick must have added another layer of flavour.

  7. Just made this with my own variations – I used boneless chicken thigh, added a green chili and also did not blend the onions and tomatoes. I simply let them cook down it all naturally blended into one paste during the “bhuno” process. Looks great so far and I can’t wait to try it. Thanks for the recipe!

  8. Sameenah says:

    Just followed your recipe for a davaath tonight!
    Brave i know, but your recipe is so easy to follow. I am really pleased with the results (more telling is thatso is my husband!).
    Will be following your blog for more inspiring and authentic tastes of home

    • @Sameenah Thank you so much. My mother was visiting and left to go back home today, so your words really warmed my heart.

  9. I have followed your recipe every time I make curry chicken, it always comes out fantastic. The only thing I include are bay leaves and cinnamon. I have followed other recipes before, but I must say I really enjoy yours over any others I’ve tried. Great recipe, thanks for sharing!

  10. Jason Edgell says:

    So glad I found this recipe. Had a friend from Pakistan that used to make it for me. I’ve missed it so much. Used to eat it with palak and yogurt sauce of some kind. One of my favorites. Thanks again:)

  11. I just made this yesterday and the elaichi makes it divine! I have been trying to make this for the better part of the past year and I googled tons of recipes but it never tasted like home (neither did it look like it).. I get major cravings for salaan after every exam and the past year had its fair share. I dont have a blender (grad student life) so I chopped the onions superfine and added the tomatoes and they melted pretty nicely.

    I had this morning with couscous and it made me unbearably happy!

  12. I just happened to come across your blog whilst i was looking for chicken curry recipes. I tried this and I loved it . the kids loved it !! I added a bit more onion as i wanted more gravy. I too added cinnamon sticks. it was lovely and easy :)

  13. shushant says:

    Cooked it today .the recipie seems intresting.dying to taste it

  14. Zarlasht shah says:

    Would it be ok to use already fried onions (packet ones) instead of frying the onions? If yes then would I directly mix in the garlic and ginger?

    • @Zarlasht Hello – yes, try it with fried onions – I suspect the taste might be different, but go ahead and try it :) I would love to hear about how it turned out. x s

    • @Zarlasht Hello – you will note that the fried onions impart a different taste to the curry – but if you do want to use them, yes, you would mix them with ginger and garlic. x s

  15. Vamsee Krishna says:

    Absolutely loved the taste of the curry. Only change made is fried the chicken. Thanks for the recipe and keeping sharing more.

  16. your recipe is really wonderful. i really enjoyed the recipe, i am not much good at cooking but i really learned a lot through this, it was simple and easy to understand. keep up the good work.

    thankyou

  17. Hi, the recipe looks yummy . I will try it. Wanted to ask that do we put the whole masala in the blender or only the chunky stuff ? Thanks

    • @Fatima Thank you. I put all of it in the blender. But if you like, you can put just the chunky portion of it. x shayma

  18. Thankyou I Just Made This and it’s Lovely. I Wondered Why My “Gravy” Was Never Thick now i Shall Always Blend Stage 1. lovely Thankyou. denise x

    • @Denise Thank you so much. I feel so happy when I read comments from cooks who enjoyed making a dish I grew up eating at home.

  19. Hi, I was born in Trinidad West Indies and later migrated to the U.S where I met my Pakistani husband. He loves my mothers cooking but I also know that he loves the cooking of his beloved Pakistan. I absolutely suck at cooking East Indian foods! Every time I’d try it would be horrible and end up in the garbage. One day I came across your website and chicken curry recipe and thought this doesn’t seem so difficult and have it a try. Let’s just say that night my husband licked every finger clean. It was amazing, we both enjoyed our dinners immensely. Thank you so much for putting back some confidence in my cooking. I’ll prepare as many dishes as I please because with your help it can be done.

  20. Shayma,
    Thank you so much for a wonderful recipe!!
    It was simple and easy to follow – I used a hand-held blender for easy cleaning. My parents, aunt, brother, and sis-in-law were licking their fingers!!
    Reminded me of home :)

  21. Great article! We will be linking to this particularly great content on
    our website. Keep up the good writing.

  22. Hemant Tailor says:

    Hi
    Im not a cook but thought Id try this recipe.
    It turned out well but a bit homogenous. Next time I’m going to not blend it as it then looks like every brothers “Butter Chicken”, of which Im not a fan. The colours are rich but we lack texture in the sauce. Still a good effort on my part i thought.
    Thanks.

    Hemant

    • Hi Hemant, Sorry this wasn’t to your taste, but traditionally, a curry has a “homogenous” sauce/base, which is supposed to be velvety smooth. The recipe is not written in stone though, and if you don’t want to blend it, that is fine, too. In that case, my advice would be to remove the skin of the tomatoes by blanching. Best, Shayma

  23. i like this. its simple and quite delicious. i make it quite often and my family really enjoys it

  24. Wow, just made this for tonight’s dinner. Tastes lovely.

  25. Made this today and followed your recipe almost exactly, with the addition potatoes (that’s how mum makes it). It was awesome! Best chicken salan recipe I’ve come across online. Thanks very much!!

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