Iraqi/Indian Shabbat Chicken blends cultural food influences deliciously. Now more than ever, I have become an armchair traveler. My world has narrowed down to our apartment and so I take every opportunity to bring the world safely to us. This fragrant dish conjures up spice markets in India and the Middle East. Perhaps a little history is called for in order to understand the origins of this curried coconut chicken dish.
While we Jews are small in number, we can be found in pockets all over the world. In part this is because we have been driven out of so many places over the millennia. But it is also because of the trades that we were limited to practice as merchants of goods ranging from spices and cloth to diamonds. And as we have traveled and changed our homes, we have adopted local cuisines.
This Iraqi/Indian Shabbat Chicken (Spayty) originates with a small community of Baghdadi Jews living in India. “The community, according to professor Shalva Weil of Hebrew University who has written on the Baghdadi community, traces its origins to 1730 when a man named Joseph Semah moved from Baghdad to Surat, a city north of modern day Mumbai. By the mid-19th century thousands of Jews from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria migrated to India, escaping persecution under the rule of Daud Pasha and seeking business opportunities.” Most of this community left when India gained independence from the British.
I came across this recipe for Iraqi/Indian Shabbat Chicken on a Jewish heritage food website called Naama. It documents our varied and deep food traditions from Jewish communities all over the world. And there are always fascinating family stories to go along with the recipes.
Influences from whatever country Jews lived in were absorbed and adopted while making changes that allowed them to continue to observe the laws of kashrut. For example, this delicious curry is made with coconut milk rather than yogurt in order to honor the prohibition to not mix milk and meat. But you definitely don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this traditional Iraqi/Indian Shabbat meal.
Don’t be frightened off by the relatively long list of ingredients. If you do much South Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, you should have most of the spices on hand. Iraqi/Indian Shabbat Chicken isn’t difficult to make, but I do urge you to use fresh spices and whole spices that you grind yourself when cooking these cuisines. It is the spices that make the dish.
Since I was making this only for me and my husband, initially I did not also cook up a rice pilau to which I would have added English peas and carrots for additional color. I did serve this with a simple Moroccan beet salad and a Jerusalem salad along with a fresh mint chutney that I made. [See recipe below] Mint grows like weeds and I happen to have it in my terrace garden. You can also buy mint or coriander chutney. While normally I enjoy Indian food with naan or roti, Shabbat challah actually went beautifully with this dish and along with the potatoes served to sop up the delicious sauce. Served with some ripe cantaloupe and cherries – a perfect Friday night meal.
Since I had plenty of left-overs, the second time I served this with dal and a rice pilau. For some ideas of Indian side dishes to make, check out these suggestions.
While very well-seasoned, this dish is not at all spicy so is a perfect introduction for those who are heat averse. And the bonus in making this dish is that your house will smell absolutely amazing!
For another Iraqi chicken dish:
Yield: 6 to 8 servings, depending on sides
2 pounds chicken breasts, cut in half if large
2 pounds of chicken saddles (thighs with legs attached)
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground turmeric, divided
4 tablespoons vegetable oil (I used Canola)
5 whole cloves
5 green cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
5 generous teaspoons ground coriander
3 generous teaspoons ground cumin
About 2 pounds of small-medium potatoes, peeled [I used Yukon Gold and cut the potatoes in half so they would fit into my pan.]
1 large onion
1 piece of fresh ginger (2 tablespoons)
4 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon paprika
14 oz. can of unsweetened coconut cream
2 teaspoons white distilled vinegar
1/4 to 1/2 cup water
1 8-ounce can of bamboo shoots, drained and cut into thin slices lengthwise (Optional)
1 teaspoon garam masala
1. Place the chicken pieces into a large bowl or plastic freezer bag and sprinkle and rub all sides with 1½ teaspoons of kosher salt, ½ teaspoon of fresh cracked black pepper and ½ teaspoon of turmeric. Set aside for about 30 minutes. [This can be done hours ahead and refrigerated.]
2. Place the vegetable oil into a large pot over medium heat. Add the cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, and cumin. Fry for about 30 seconds or until fragrant.
3. Place all the chicken pieces into the pot with the skin side down. Sear the chicken until golden brown, about 5 minutes on each side. Transfer the chicken onto a plate.
4. Place the potatoes into the pot with the oil and spices and fry the potatoes until golden brown on all sides, flipping them occasionally.
5. Meanwhile, place the onion, ginger, and garlic into a blender or food processor. Process the mixture until a paste is formed, about 2 minutes. [This can also be done ahead and refrigerated.] Add the paste to the pot with the fried potatoes. Add the paprika and remaining ½ teaspoon of ground turmeric. Cook until golden, about 4 to 6 minutes. Place the chicken pieces back into the pot with the skin side up. Add the coconut cream, vinegar, water and bamboo shoots (if using) into the pot. Cover the pot and cook on medium-low heat for about 40 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. The dish can be made several hours ahead and gently reheated. I didn’t add the garam masala until just before serving.
6. Sprinkle garam masala over the curry and serve hot.
Mint Chutney (Phodino) Recipe
1 generous cup of packed fresh mint leaVES
1/2 cup of roughly chopped scallions, including green stems
1 Tablespoon finely chopped or grated fresh ginger
2 fresh hot green chili peppers, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Juice of one lemon or up to 2 limes (I used limes)
Blend everything together. Unlike commercial chutney which almost certainly has food coloring added, the green of the mint will darken some if made ahead. The taste will be fine, however. If you wish to have that vibrant green, add a couple of drops of a vegetable food coloring. I store this in a glass container in my fridge and it will perk up any meat, chicken, fish or vegetarian meal.
I actually was unable to get any hot peppers in my most recent grocery order so I substituted some Gojuchang. You could use other hot sauces like Sriracha or harissa and while possibly not quite authentic, the taste will be great.