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.

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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).

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Tamarind Skillet Chicken

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

Tags: Indian, Tips & Techniques, Marinade, Meat