This week, I want to tell you about one of my favorite South Asian dishes: Chicken Jalfrezi. With tender juicy chunks of chicken in a spicy tomato sauce studded with stir-fried peppers and onions, it’s delightfully refreshing curry that’s quick to make when done properly. Unfortunately, unlike in the UK, where it is amongst the most popular Indian dishes, you don’t see it too often on menus in the US, and where it does appear, it’s often prepared in large batches more like a stew.
I recently dined at The MasalaWala in the Lower Eastside, where they make a fantastic version of Chicken Jalfrezi to order. During my visit at around 3pm on a Monday afternoon half the tables were full, which was a surprise given the day of the week and time, but what was more surprising was that I was the only person not of South Asian decent in the entire restaurant. The food (I got a Samosa, Lentil Soup, Chicken Jalfrezi and Naan) didn’t disappoint, and after arriving home in Japan, it wasn’t long before I was craving another bowl of Jalfrezi.
As it turns out, Chicken Jalfrezi doesn’t have a long tradition in India. It was a dish developed by cooks of the British Raj as a way to use up leftovers by frying them with onions and chili. The stir-fry style preparation means it comes together in under 30 minutes, which is incredibly fast given many curries can take hours to make. This not only makes it a viable weeknight meal, I love the fact that it preserves the flavor and texture of the peppers and onions.
This dish is lighter and less complex than most curries, but with caramelized aromatics and spices like Nigella and Star Anise, this Chicken Jalfrezi has a unique flavor profile that’s a far-cry from bland. Nigella seeds known in Hindi as Kalonji, are often mislabeled black caraway, black cumin or black onion seeds. While they do have an anise-like flavor with hints of onion, Nigella Sativa is totally unrelated to caraway, cumin or onion with its closest, though still distant relative being Poppies.
Paired with some naan or pulao, this quick curry makes for a deceptively flavorful meal that tastes like it took far longer to make than it actually does.
- Season the chicken with salt and black pepper.
- Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat until hot and then add the chicken in a single layer. Let the chicken brown on one side before flipping and browning the other side. When the chicken has browned, transfer it to a bowl and set aside.
- Add the star anise, cumin seeds, nigella seeds and cloves to the pan and fry the spices until they start to pop. Be careful not to burn the spices.
- Working quickly, add the ginger and garlic and stir-fry until fragrant.
- Add the onion, green and red bell peppers and tomatoes and stir-fry until most of the liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated.
- Add the tomato sauce, garam masala, sugar and salt. Return the chicken to the pan and simmer until the sauce has thickened and the chicken has cooked through. You can increase the level of heat to taste by adding cayenne pepper.
- Garnish with cilantro and serve with rice or naan.