Probably the best chicken dish you'll ever make
I wanted to figure out the Chicken Rezala. But one thing led to another.
I think the restaurant was called Armenia. Perhaps it was not. It could have been Aminia. Or even Amenorrhea. I remember that the city was Calcutta, or perhaps Kolkata, and I was a strapping young fellow who would eat anything twice. It is equally possible that I was a lanky youth who ate sparingly. Nothing is quite clear. I remember a restaurant in a crowded gully near New Market, lots of white tiling which gave it the feel of a public toilet, and three basic rows of tables with benches. A partition provided privacy from adjoining tables.
Most of all, though, I remember an amazing taste. Teasing, spicy, seductive, a come-hither taste that you knew you had never met before and would be lucky to meet again. I remember the dish too — a beige-white gravy, thin is how I recall it, with the beige-white of chicken legs, textured only with little islets of oil.
Really? Was that how bland it looked, a whitish dish in a whitish restaurant? No, I missed out the dried red chillies, vivid but harmless, floating on the gravy to lend it a little presence. Not that I'm even suggesting that the rezala needs any help, heavens no, it's a one-dish show, just needs a little rice on the side, nothing else.
Years later, in a kitchen in Bangkok, the taste came back, unexpected, uninvited, but right there on the tip of my tongue, challenging, taunting, a guess-who taste, beyond description. This is the story of how I tried to re-invent the rezala, right there, right then, failed — but ended up creating a brand new taste that is seriously enchanting.
Eliminating the rezala
Googling rezala will give you a long line of recipes and a little trivial history. You will learn that it is a predominantly Muslim dish, although it is also now enshrined in the cuisine of Bengal, India. You will learn that it is a standard in that country of first-rate chefs, Bangladesh, and that their recipe is subtler than the Bengali one. Looking through the recipes, I noted that a rezala could be built around the robust textures and flavors of lamb or mutton, or the less aggressive tastes of chicken.
But where my attention lingered were the ingredients — garlic paste, ginger paste, bay leaf, and garam masala, with yoghurt. My heart sank. What was subtle and tantalizing about this everyday combination of the commonest kitchen ingredients? How could they produce the enigma I remembered?
Take the pale colored gravy. It was not coconut milk, this I could swear, but damned if it was just yoghurt or cream.
The mutton rezala recipe from Bangladesh included rose water, saffron, and cinnamon, and I admit all of those can add tantalizing dimensions to the dish, but something in me rebelled against such a simple denouement to my quest.
And this is how, stubborn as a mule, I finally cooked a dish that simply cannot be called a rezala. Call it a mezala. Call it a kaizala.
Here it is, in full and final, the recipe to a dish that I do believe has sprung from my imagination, inspired by elusive memories and fragrances. Try it. Inshallah, it will win you a bride, or if female, a groom.
- Finely chop two of the onions and the garlic. Crush the white peppercorns in a pestle.
- Skin and bone the chicken and cut into medium-sized pieces.
- To make the marinade, mix the yoghurt, garlic, finely chopped onions, crushed peppercorns and salt in a bowl.
- Add the chicken, and toss till all the pieces are evenly coated. Stretch cling wrap over the bowl and marinate in the cool section of the fridge for about an hour.
- Meanwhile, roughly chop the remaining two onions.
- Powder the aniseed first in a spice grinder, and then combine in a blender with the cashew nuts, roughly chopped onions and green chillies. Blend to a fine paste, adding a little water if necessary.
- Soak the saffron threads in two tablespoons of lukewarm water.
- Take the chicken out of the fridge, and carefully clean the marinade off each piece with your fingers. Blend the marinade into a fine liquid.
- Heat a tablespoon of cooking oil with 2 tbsps of ghee, and when it is smoking, add the cinnamon, cloves and bay leaves.Stir for half a minute or so, and then add the chicken pieces. Stir till they change color and become white.
- Add the cashew-nut-onion-aniseed-chilly paste. Lower the heat and stir for about a minute and then add the yoghurt of the marinade. Add salt as appropriate, since the marinade was already salted.
- Add hot water to thin the gravy, lower the heat and cook covered until the chicken pieces are cooked. If the gravy thickens in this process, add some more hot water to thin it to a pancake batter like consistency. Towards the end, remove the bay leaves and the cinnamon sticks.
- Add the saffron liquid and threads, and the rose water, and stir gently.
- Before serving, heat up the remaining ghee, and when it is smoking, add the dry red chillies. Remember, chillies blacken in microseconds.
Of course, there is a small problem. It's not a rezala at all, even though that's what I had been trying to create. Being the unimaginative sort, I've been calling it Mysterious Chicken with Cashew Nuts and Aniseed.
I'm sure you can think of something better. Right?