Food

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.

Ingredients

  • 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

Preparation

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.

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