Sweet sassy molassy, do I miss live theater. The smell of the grease paint! The roar of the crowd! The state of being outside the house! As much as I love the deep, intimate relationship I’ve built with my television over the past ten months, it will always lack the sheer electricity of being in the room where the magic happens, connecting with the humanity of the actors on stage, feeling the power of their words rattle deep in your bones. Though the current state of our world doesn’t permit us to experience the theater in the same way, this pandemic will not kill that which has brought mankind joy since the Theatre of Dionysus opened its doors over 2,000 years ago. As always, the show must go on.
Bollywood Kitchen is a new and innovative twist on the dinner-and-a-show experience—one that I hope will continue after the curtain falls on these most unprecedented of modern times. Produced by the Hypokrit Theater Company in conjunction with the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, this one-man show is designed to be enjoyed from the comfort of your own kitchen. Broadcasting live from his apartment, actor, playwright, and cookbook author Sri Rao has created an interactive theatrical experience that invites you to cook alongside him as he shares deeply personal stories about his Indian-American upbringing, interspersed with musical numbers from some of his favorite Bollywood films. It’s a scripted and purposefully crafted alternative to the spate of loose, informal cooking demonstrations that have proliferated during the pandemic; best case scenario, you leave the production having gained both new skills and a fresh perspective.
Prior to the performance, I was sent a box filled with recipe cards and the ingredients I needed to participate, including a beautiful array of Indian spices that will last me for months. Good thing, too, as I intend to make this recipe—the other star of the show—many, many more times. I’m not sure if Bollywood Kitchen is the first theatrical adaptation of a cookbook, but I hope that it won’t be the last.
Sri’s Signature Chicken
Reprinted with permission from Bollywood Kitchen: Home-cooked Indian Meals Paired with Unforgettable Bollywood Films by Sri Rao (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
I can’t decide if I have a favorite movie in this book, but English Vinglish is certainly near the top. Likewise, if there’s only one recipe you take with you from this book, my signature chicken curry should be it. Every home has a go-to chicken dish—the one that you make more than any other, that pleases everyone in the family, and that you’re proud to serve to guests. This is that dish in my house. I’m incredibly satisfied with this recipe just as it is, rich with spice and flavor, but you can also view it as a base from which to create slightly different curries. For a creamy variation, swap the coconut powder for 2 tablespoons of Greek yogurt. Or for a saucier version, add one finely chopped tomato after you’ve sautéed the onion (and skip the coconut). In fact, if you choose to cook with chicken breasts instead of thighs, I recommend opting for one of these variations because they’ll provide more moisture for the lean meat. (I also suggest reducing the amount of time you cook the chicken by about 10 minutes.) This recipe, like all curries, is inevitably better the day after you’ve cooked it, once the spices have had a chance to soak even deeper into the meat. So make it a day ahead if you can. Once you get the hang of it, you could easily be cooking Sri’s Signature Chicken every week . . . at which point, you’re welcome to call it your signature chicken.
- 2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1½-inch chunks
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons garlic paste (or minced garlic)
- 1 heaping tablespoon ginger paste (or minced ginger)
- 1/2 tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon Indian red chilli powder (or cayenne)
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
- 1/2 cup coconut powder
- 1/2 tablespoon ground coriander
- Lemon wedges, for garnish
- Onion slices, for garnish
- Cooked rice (any type), for serving
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a Dutch oven or heavy saucepan over medium to medium-high heat. Season the chicken pieces with the turmeric. In multiple batches (to prevent crowding the pan), lightly brown the chicken on all sides. Remove to a plate.
Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in the pan and add the bay leaves, allowing them to begin infusing the oil for 15 seconds. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until golden brown, reducing the heat if necessary to prevent burning, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger pastes and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Then add the salt, red chilli powder, cinnamon, and cloves. Stir the spices into the onion, allowing them to bloom for another minute. Return the chicken to the pan. Stir well to coat all the pieces evenly with the spice paste. Decrease the heat, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally while scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan, for 15 minutes.
Remove the bay leaves. Stir in the cilantro, coconut powder, and coriander. If you’re making the dish a day ahead, turn off the heat at this point. Cool before refrigerating and then finish cooking before you serve.
Decrease the heat to the lowest setting, cover, and continue cooking for another 15 minutes. Stir well. Adjust the seasonings to taste. Turn off the heat and allow the meat to rest for 10 minutes. Garnish with the lemon wedges and slices of onion. Serve with rice.