Thursday, November 05, 2009

Chechi's one pot Chilli chicken

"This is your room", the watchman said as I rolled my gigantic suitcase to a stop. The room was locked and outside on the ledge of a wall facing the courtyard, two girls sat talking. They spoke and dressed differently from anyone else I'd seen in Madras till then, in fact, they spoke and dressed just like me! All pangs of loneliness and homesickness temporarily fluttered away, quickly replaced by a sense of belonging as I instantly felt the connection with my new roommates-- all part of the brilliant, insightful plan of the hostel management. They figured that by placing all the NRI (non resident Indian) girls together, there would be stronger bonds, fewer arguments and fewer complaints of theft of "foreign" necessities like soap, shampoo or what have you. Thanks to that logic, at one point in time there were 10 of us in a 10X20 ft room, sharing one single bathroom! As it turned out all of us NRI's were from some part of the Middle-east, a majority were from the UAE, one was from Qatar and I was from Kuwait. We were each allotted one sturdy wooden twin bed with the ultimate luxury of a spring mattress but there was simply no room for 10 of those, 2 study tables and an engineering drawing stand. So in a flash of
resourcefulness bordering genius, we reasoned that since the sides of the beds were low we could line 4 beds next to each other against the longest stretch of wall and that (curbing any tendency to sprawl) would allow all 10 of us to sleep and still acommodate all the other necessary furniture.

I still remember the very first morning. We'd been up late the night before talking, getting each other up to speed about our parents, our siblings, friends, pets, schools, countries, everything that really mattered to teenagers. We collectively decided what we would wear for our College orientation the next day. The college had a dress code, only salwar kameezs for girls and since none of us in the room ever wore it (regularly), we were curiously excited about new attire defining the transition from high school uniform to collegebound independence. So imagine our shock when the next morning we found the first day of a lifetime of well dressed professional accomplishment thwarted by no running water. WELCOME TO INDIA!! There was only one tap in the entire hostel that was choking out a feeble stream and it was in the front yard. We grabbed our buckets in a mad dash to the yard, joining all the other hostel residents. Waiting our turn we made friends with other first years, too intimidated yet to talk to the "seniors". Slowly we got to know everybody-- the senior who spoke too long on the phone, the rude one who pushed for 2 bowls of ice cream, the loud one who cursed too much or the one who never wore a slip. We were ofcourse the ones who could be relied on for enough foreign candy to feed a sugar rush anytime of day. We were also the strange ones who were inconsolably homesick. Every night at least one of us would secretly slip out the room, go through a secret entrance to the rooftop and there hidden in the shadows under the most beautiful unadulterated starry sky we wept our lonely tears away.

One christmas break being the only one in the room without a place to go, I stayed back in the hostel. We were allowed one trip a month into the city. The college bus would pick us up at 9am from the hostel and again at 5pm from a couple of stops in the city. This being our only contact with the outside world, we'd buy everything our heart craved the past month, check our email, call our families, watch a movie and eat ice cream sundaes at Shakes 'n Creams. Back from such a trip that Christmas with junk food supplies replenished, I'd skipped lunch and locked myself up in the room for a meal in bed and a nap. Just as I'd cozied myself up in thick, rugged hostel blankets there were loud bangs on the door-- someone was using the handle of the metal bolt to knock URGENTLY. I bounded out of bed thinking I was being informed of an overseas phonecall and prepared to run downstairs to get it. But instead when the door flung open I was face-to-face with a stern senior who barked, "Did you eat yet?? Theres payasam today. Here!", handing me a shallow stainless steel bowl filled with sweet starchy goo. Rashmi, who we called Chechi (meaning big sister in her native tongue, Malayalam), lived one room away and was the cousin of one my roommates. In her 80's style white sports shorts and long, wavy hair tamed either into a half pony or half french braid, she was quite the icon of the hostel hallways. She was known to accost unsuspecting first years and to tackle my roommates for reasons unknown, yelling "Ahdi! Ahdi!". Really much larger in spirit than her pretty, petite, 5 foot something exterior would let on. Too scared, I'd never really spoken to her before and was really surprised to have her deliver dessert to my doorstep. But Chechi had heard that I was alone and took it upon herself to feed me. We got real close after that and when for whatever reason she needed to find a new room we made place on our 4 bed merged creation for her. Although only 4 years older than us, Chechi was the mother that all of us missed and longed for. Her intangible duties were many-- she made sure that the room was clean, everyone was fed, everyone danced and laughed, everyone got along and when we didnt, she solved our problems. And I'm telling you she could even predict the future, she knew the kind of men we would (or should) end up with-- analyzing, understanding and accepting our individuality only as a mother could. There never was a doubt that Chechi would make an amazing mother which fast forwarding a decade she is to two beautiful children who she promises (like us then) fingerprints-on-bums for any mischief!!

When Chechi recently sent me the recipe for her one pot chilli chicken recipe, our favorite Indo-Chinese hostel meal, with step by step pictures I simply HAD to share it with you. I made some slight modifications-- making the chicken crispier and the final outcome more dry but its still a one pot recipe just without the hour long marination-- I can never think ahead long enough but am sure she'll forgive the changes :) In a world where nothing ever stays the same its comforting to have people who are just as if frozen in time. Thanks for the recipe and the pictures, Chechi, love you loads!!


(Warning!: This dish is super spicy so feel free to adjust spice levels to your liking. Deseeded Jalapenos can be substituted for Thai chillies)

1. In a large bowl mix 2 lbs chicken (chopped into bite size pieces, for convenience used boneless skinless breast pieces when I tried it) with 2 heaping tbsps of ginger-garlic paste, 6 chopped Thai green chillies, 1 tsp salt, 1 tbsp vinegar, 1 tbsp soysauce, 2 tbsp pepper powder, 3 tbsp corn starch and 1 lightly beaten egg. Chicken should feel sticky with chilli pieces stuck to them, if not add more corn starch.

2. In a large flat bottomed frying pan add enough oil to completely coat the bottom. Arrange chicken pieces in one layer as much as possible. Cook pieces on high heat till golden brown on side, then flip over to brown the other side. The corn starch and egg give the chicken a crispy coating. Reduce flame to medium and add 2 medium onions chopped and 1 green pepper cut into strips (I used 2 cups of frozen mixed color pepper strips). Stir till onions and peppers soften up.

3. Add 2 tbsp chilli sauce (Sri racha).

4. Dissolve 1 tbsp corn starch into 1 cup of water or chicken broth (for more gravy increase broth quantity) and pour into the pan. Mix vigorously till the liquid thickens (about 3 minutes). Check seasoning. If you want it saltier, add more soy sauce.

5. Take pan off the heat and garnish with chopped spring onions and cilantro (optional).

This is Chechi's final dish which, she says she would have liked a bit more dry:
This is my almost finished dish, its very dry but again you can completely control that with the broth:

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