Boxing Day, 2006
If you don’t know what Bottle Masala means, a quick introduction. It’s a fabled masala made by Bombay’s East Indian community. Essentially it’s a blend of 20 spices or more; ground by hand on a grinding stone. The making of Bottle Masala is a seasonal process; summer mostly, I think. Once the masala is ready, the divine powder is stored in washed, sun-dried glass bottles that once held Boost, Horlicks, Brooke Bond Red Label Tea, Bru Filter Coffee and Tang. Hence, the term, Bottle Masala.
Each and every family has its own special blend and the recipes are passed on mouth-to-ear from generation to generation. The recipes are guarded ferociously and nothing short of sticking lit matchsticks between Aunt Helen’s toes can unlock their secrets. But why resort to such heinous tactics? East Indians are among the most generous of Bombay’s citizens; many a bottle of Bottle Masala has found its way into the hearts and souls and shelves of an appreciative multitude. In Bombay, Borneo, Timbuctoo… and Toronto; my stash was courtesy my cousin Jack’s wife’s nana Anna. I used some of it to make chicken curry for a bunch of O’Briens, O’Tooles, O’Caseys, O’Donnels… Oh, I’m sure you’ve got the picture; a a houseful of Irish blokes and then some.
I met Aideen O’Brien* through my friend Ross. It was Christmas eve and Ross and I had the pleasure of chugging gallons of beers with Aideen and family and friends at an Irish pub called… hmmm, never mind. Filled with lashings of spirits: Christmas and Jack Daniels, I cheerfully agreed to make dinner for Aideen & Co. on Boxing Day.
Despite the excesses of Christmas Day, I found myself in fine fettle on D-Day. No jitters, no d.t.’s, nuffink. Aided by vast quantities of Sleeman’s lager, of which Aideen kept up a steady supply, and the occasional cigarette break, Aideen, Ross and I turned out quite meal: Tumeric-flavoured potatoes, chicken drumsticks in tikka masala, a tangy dal, chicken curry, steamed rice and a cucumber/spring onion raita. To my delight, the food went down well. Yes, the food was spicy (as Indian food should be); yet not hot enough to make an Irishman relinquish his Guinness or Jameson for a drink he rarely allows to pass his lips: water. And that, ladies, gents and assorted bacteria, is what I consider a compliment.
12 chicken breasts on the bone
Marinade: 2 tsps ginger-garlic paste
3 tbsp oil
12 curry leaves
3 bay leaves
3 onions, chopped fine
3 tomatoes, chopped fine
1 and 1/2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
1⁄2 tsp tumeric powder
1 tsp chilli powder 2 tsp Bottle Masala (use any masala you prefer/have)
800ml chicken stock
Salt to taste
Slash even cuts across the chicken breasts.
Deep yet not too much; so the flesh should not fall away when cooked; makes for a good presentation.
Marinate with 2 tsp of ginger-garlic paste.
Minimum an hour; more time, more flavour, of course.
Heat oil in a large pot.
Keep flame on medium.
When hot, toss in curry leaves and bay leaves.
When aroma unleashed, in with the onions.
Fry till translucent.
Cook till tomato juices are gone.
Next, fry 1 and 1⁄2 tsps ginger-garlic paste along with powders: tumeric and chilli, followed by Bottle Masala.
Stir till you can smell the spices.
Bring the ‘bagar’ to a side of the pan.
Then, arrange breast pieces, flesh side down, so it can fry in the oil.
Scoop ‘bagar’ on top of the breast pieces.
If all the chicken pieces don’t fit in bottom of pan, start making another layer with the remaining pieces.
Spread ‘bagar’ over new pieces, too.
Put flame a shade below medium.
Allow chicken juices to run out and cook the flesh (wait for a few minutes and you will see all the juices have come out).
When the juices reduce by half, turn the pieces over so other side gets a bit of frying.
When juices almost gone, pour in the chicken stock.
Allow to cook till stock reduces by 1/3rd.
Then arrange the chicken in an ovenproof dish.
Pour juices over it.
Slide into oven preheated at 176.6ºC (350ºF) for 15-20 mins.
The juices will further reduce (and intensify flavour) and the chicken will have a yummy crunchy coating yet the flesh below will be tender and moist.
*Apart from other things, Aideen is a singer too. Check her out at aideenobrien.com