It’s fun to trace the journey of spices. Originating predominantly in India, these goodies must have reached East Africa through trade and eventually traversed the continent till they reached the west coast, where they inflected themselves into the flavors of the local cuisines. So many Indian standbys: coriander, fenugreek, cumin, cloves, black pepper, and more were found in this stew recipe that I just couldn’t help but think of the possible resemblance that it might have to a standard chicken curry. Well, I was wrong.
It is just a couple of changes that give this dish a visible and tastefully unique identity. It’s definitely more bulky than the curries we make. Eggplant or baingan is savored with the utmost relish in a multitude of ways across India, yet almost all of them are vegetarian preparations. Who would have known that an eggplant’s heartiness makes it the perfect partner for almost any kind of meat? Then there’s the addition of okra, a practice that perhaps traveled over with the slave trade to Louisiana, where it got incorporated into the famous gumbo. The vegetables in this stew are not petty. They are practically on the same level as the chunks of chicken, seared in the pan until brown and caramelized.
The peanut butter though, was a revelation. Lending a rich and nutty creaminess, it sets this stew off the edge, rounding out the flavor with its mellow tones and thickening it much like how cashew paste is used to thicken Mughal style curries in North India. Sure peanut butter is probably not what is used in West Africa. It’s far more likely that fresh nuts are ground laboriously with a mortar and pestle until they resemble a coarse paste. Therefore, do be sure to use a high quality, all natural peanut butter in this recipe. That means no corn syrup, oil, or any other synthetic material should be in the ingredient list! I happen to love the fresh, grind-it-yourself peanut butter available at Whole Foods. It maybe a bit more expensive, but the taste is far more superior, and buying just the amount you need will not set you back that far.
This stew has got heat, meat, bulk, grit, tang, and a little sweet. It’s undoubtedly a complete meal and one that will have your guests showering you with rounds of praise.
Recipe from Saveur
- 1/3 cup canola oil, adjust to your preferences, I may have used a bit less
- 2 pounds skinless chicken thighs, bone-in
- salt, to taste
- 1/4 cup ginger, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 4 dried chiles de arbol (also known as japones or simply red chiles in the Indian market)
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/3 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
- 3 cloves, whole
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3/4 cup peanut butter
- 1 cup diced tomatoes
- 1 pound eggplant, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1/4 pound okra, whole or cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 fresh red or green chile, sliced
- roasted peanuts, for garnishing
- lime wedges and lime juice, optional for serving
Heat the oil in a dutch oven or heavy-bottomed casserole pot over medium-high heat. Once hot, season the chicken thighs liberally with salt and pepper and add to the pot, browning until golden brown, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside.
Add the onions and arbol chilies to the residual oil in the pot, cooking for about 5 minutes until softened. Add the ginger and garlic and cook the mixture for another 3 minutes. Add the spices and cook for another minute until fragrant. At this point, add the tomato paste and caramelize it along with aromatics for three minutes. Stir in the peanut butter and tomatoes, and cook out this masala until the oil separates and begins to pool along the sides. This should happen within five minutes.
Return the chicken thighs to the pot along with 6 cups of water and bring the mixture to a boil. Immediately reduce to a simmer and cook for 25 minutes, until the chicken is about halfway done. Then add the eggplant and okra and cook for another 30 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and vegetables are tender. Adjust the stew for seasoning and add a squeeze or two of lime juice if necessary. Stir in the chopped red/green chile and serve with steamed basmati rice, lime wedges, and crushed peanuts for garnishing.