Black Pepper Chicken: Nik Sharma's heat-filled recipe is for nights when you want something wonderfully warm

This spice-marinated meal from the pages of The Flavor Equation promises to taste as good as it sounds.

This spice-marinated meal from the pages of The Flavor Equation promises to taste as good as it sounds

(Photography by Nik Sharma)

Nik Sharma’s latest cookbook, The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking in 114 Essential Recipes, includes a recipe for this delicious-sounding black pepper chicken. It’s a dish without a chili in sight that still promises to deliver its fair share of heat! The chicken is served atop basmati rice — read on for Sharma’s recipe, plus his how-to for getting the rice just right.

Black Pepper Chicken

By Nik Sharma

Before chillies arrived in India, black pepper was an important ingredient that provided heat in cooking. There are a few different versions of black pepper chicken, some dry and some with a more gravy-like sauce. If you prefer a drier chicken, use half the amount of coconut milk indicated in the recipe.

The flavour approach: 

The heat in this dish comes from the pepper. For a more pronounced aroma and taste, use Tellicherry peppercorns, inspired by the South Indian stew of the same name.

Fennel seeds and slow-cooked onions provide sweetness to counteract the heat. Onions contain long chains of fructose molecules called fructans that break down on heating to release the sweeter-tasting fructose molecules.

Coconut milk is an emulsion of water, fat, proteins, and sugars that provides creaminess.

Use a fragrant coconut oil to get the full impact of coconut fragrance and flavor in this dish.


  • 2 tbsp black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds, ground
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds, ground
  • 2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 2 tbsp fresh lime juice
  • Fine sea salt
  • 3 lb [1.4 kg] boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 2 large onions (total weight about 1 ¾ lb [800 g]), cut in half and thinly sliced
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and grated
  • 2 in [5 cm] piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • One 13.6 fl oz [403 mL] can full-fat unsweetened coconut milk
  • 2 tbsp chopped cilantro, for garnish
  • Plain Rice (recipe to follow), for serving

For the Plain Rice:

  • 1 cup [200 g] basmati rice
  • 4 cups [960 mL] water


Grind the peppercorns to a coarse powder. In a small dry skillet or saucepan, toast the pepper, coriander, and fennel until they just turn fragrant, 30 to 45 seconds. Immediately transfer to a small bowl. Stir in the turmeric and lime juice and season with salt to form a paste.

Place the chicken in a large bowl and massage it with the spice paste. Transfer to a large resealable bag or wrap the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight, to marinate.

When ready to cook, set the chicken on the kitchen counter to reach room temperature, about 15 minutes.

Heat the coconut oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté for 4 to 5 minutes, until they just turn translucent. Add the garlic and ginger and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the marinated chicken with any liquid and the coconut milk, bring to a boil over high heat, then turn the heat to low and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until the chicken is completely cooked and the liquid becomes a thick sauce. Stir occasionally to prevent burning. Remove from the heat, taste, and season with salt. Garnish with the cilantro and serve with warm rice.

Plain Rice:

For the most part, I cook with basmati rice at home. Basmati rice is renowned not only for its spectacular long grains but also for its aroma. Being a creature of habit, I purchase my basmati rice from my Indian food market. When purchasing basmati, always ask for rice that’s from India and has been aged for at least 1 year; the aroma will be richer.

When I cook basmati for plain rice, pulaos, or biryani, I follow these three rules:

1. Once water is added to the rice on the stove, avoid stirring or mixing it.

2. For plain rice, I do not add any salt or oil because they reduce the natural fragrance of basmati rice.

3. To add a bit of color, add a pinch of ground saffron, a few drops of beet juice, or turmeric powder.

Pick through the rice and remove any stones or debris. Place the rice in a fine-mesh sieve and rinse under cool running water until the water is no longer cloudy. Transfer the rice to a medium bowl, cover with 2 cups [480 ml] of the water or enough water to cover the grains by at least 1 in [2.5 cm], and soak for 30 minutes. Drain the water. Place the rice in a medium saucepan or a small Dutch oven with a lid and add the remaining 2 cups [480 ml] of water or enough water to cover the grains by at least 1 in [2.5 cm]. Bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. Turn the heat to low, cover, and cook until most of the water has evaporated, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit, covered, for another 5 minutes. Just before serving, fluff the rice with a fork.

Yield: Makes 4-6 servings; Plain Rice recipe makes 2 servings (about 1¼ lb [570 g] cooked rice)

Excerpted from The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking in 114 Essential Recipes by Nik Sharma (C) 2020 Reproduced by permission of Chronicle Books. All rights reserved.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?