How to CookIndian

I Finally Know the Indian Mom–Approved Trick to Better Chicken

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My mother's fridge could be categorized into two sections: stuff she bought at the Indian store (hari mirch, dosa mav, and the frozen samosas), and stuff she bought at the regular grocery shop. But I often puzzled over why she bought yogurt at the Indian shop, when she could have bought it at the A&P. Perhaps it was a matter of simplicity, not having to wade through options, since the Indian shop only carried one kind and one size of yogurt (plain, full-fat, a quart), while the American grocery store had Greek, Icelandic, and a myriad of fruity flavors. I don't remember eating yogurt for breakfast too often growing up, and yogurt mixed with rice only showed up on occasion, so I don't know why it was always in the fridge—where was it going?

It wasn't until well into my twenties when I realized yogurt was the reason any chicken or meat dish she made tasted so tender and never rubbery—one of the oldest Indian non-vegetarian tricks in the book. One night, I had run out of mayonnaise, my usual go-to marinade—a trick I learned from Alexandra Stafford's roasted chicken thighs—and turned to a 30-minute rest in yogurt. The results were similar, but I tasted more of the garlic, thyme, salt, and oregano I added to the marinade. Since yogurt has more water content than mayonnaise, it clears the way for the spices to do their thing(s) more effectively. The catch is it takes a bit longer than 30 minutes for it to taste Indian-mom-approved magical; three hours at minimum. But it's worth the planning ahead.

This chicken proves how effective a yogurt marinade can be.
This chicken proves how effective a yogurt marinade can be. Photo by Alanna Taylor-Tobin

The lactic acid in a yogurt marinade—with any spices of your choosing!—is not as potent as some of its more acidic friends (looking at you, citrus), so you can let it sit for a while, but most recipes (and my aunty) don't recommend a marinade exceeding 24 hours. So I've found that preparing it before I sleep on a weeknight, then cooking it for dinner as soon as I get home from work, with a side of roasted vegetables or some greens, is best for me. Early risers, feel free to do this the morning of.

And if you need a recipe to convince you, look no further than Asha Shivakumar's two-step Tamarind Skillet Chicken, from her cookbook Masala and Meatballs, which would put my mother's fridge to good use with its American spin on Indian food (and vice versa).

Tamarind Skillet Chicken

Tamarind Skillet Chicken

Food52 Food52
Serves 6
  • Marinade:
  • 1/2 cup (120 g) thick full-fat yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons (28 g) ginger garlic paste
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) oil
  • 2 teaspoons (12 g) salt
  • 6 large chicken thighs
  • Tamarind Masala Sauce:
  • 2 tablespoons (10 g) coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon (6 g) cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • 1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds (meethi)
  • 10-12 whole red chiles, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons (16 g) white sesame seeds
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) thick tamarind pulp, or 2 tsp (9 g) tamarind paste mixed in 1/2 cup (120 ml) water
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) vegetable oil
  • 10–15 pearl onions
  • 1/3 cup (80 g) ketchup (I use Maggi Hot and Sweet sauce)
  • 1 tablespoon (14 g) tomato paste (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
  • Lemon wedges, for garnish
Go to Recipe

Are you a fan of yogurt marinade? How do you flavor yours? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: Marinade, Chicken, Meat, Tips & Techniques