Since having made butter chicken and discovering an Indian grocery in town, I wanted to try something new and different that also applied some of the new things I’d learned (and bought). The result: an Indian-inspired take on sweet & sour chicken.
I marinated and then broiled some chicken thighs like a typical chicken tikka so as to give the meat a tender, tasty flavor. The sauce is composed largely of orange juice and tamarind. Tamarind is a really interesting fruit, and even if you’ve never heard of it before, I bet you’ve eaten it without knowing it. For instance, it is largely featured in worcestershire sauce and the somewhat liquidy brown sauce you might have at an Indian restaurant (e.g. usually with somosas). Tamarind is kind of citrusy sweet and also distinctly sour, but in a really tasty, interesting way.
What would pair well with citrusy? Why the citrusy sweet of orange juice of course. But if you stopped there, you’d run the risk of enhancing the sourness of the tamarind with all of that acidity. So the sauce is rounded out with some other sweet elements (e.g. honey and dark molasses) just so that the sweet can still respectably stand up against the sour as they are both title roles.
Behind all of this sweet and sour action is some heat and body from a variety of sweet and spicy peppers and some distinctive eastern savory spices. Another strong and essential element to this dish: ginger which is used both in paste form to marinate the chicken and in fresh slices to flavor the sauce, thus being my my entry in this month’s Think Spice, hosted by Sunita over at Sunita’s World. The end result is mildy hot, tangy, dark, complicated sweet & sour sauce.
- Chicken Tikka
- 1.5-2 lbs chicken thighs (boneless weight)
- 1/8 cup ginger paste
- 1/8 cup garlic paste
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup buttermilk
- 1/2 Tbsp chilli powder (adjust to taste, as is will give medium heat)
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup of butter
- Vegetable oil
- finger-sized piece of fresh ginger
- 6 cardamom pods
- 3 cinammon sticks
- 5 whole cloves
- 3 Bay leaves
- 1 or 2 star anise
- 1 shallot
- 1 red bell pepper
- 2-3 jalapeño peppers
- 2 indian chilis
- 2 cup orange juice
- 3 Tbsp tamarind
- 2 Tbsp molasses
- 1 Tbsp soy sauce
- 3/8 cup cashews
- 1 Tbsp ground coriander
- 1 Tbsp honey
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste
- small handful of sesame seeds
- 5 scallions
- 1 poblano pepper
I’ve come to really like using chicken thighs rather than breast as these stay much moister and are just plain tastier than breasts. The only down side is you have to do a little more cleaning up front, but its no biggie. So on that note: trim any excess fat and if you have to, remove the skin and bones. Don’t worry about chopping the chicken down into bite-sized pieces just yet–that comes later.
Now prepare your chicken tikka marinade. Simply rub the chicken thighs all over with garlic paste, ginger paste, and salt.
In a separate container, mix the buttermilk, chili powder, and oil. Add in your chicken and toss it all together, doing your best to coat everything evenly. Seal this and let it marinate in the fridge for several hours (I let it sit overnight).
So now that you’ve marinated your chicken (time sure flies between paragraphs), get your broiler up to 450?F and cook the chicken for about 20 minutes. While that’s going, on to the sauce. The first step to preparing the sauce is to release a lot of the strong flavors from the savory spices, one of the stars here being fresh ginger. So first, slice a piece of ginger roughly the size of your finger and dice this up thinly.
In a large saucepan, heat up some oil and then add the whole spices, sliced ginger, minced shallot, and peppers. I had a mix of small chilis and jalapeños, so I sliced the jalapeños so as to be more comparable in size. The bell pepper also needs to be broken down to a usable size, so dice that up.
Keep everything moving in the oil and let it cook for about 5 minutes or so. The cardamom pods bring a really interesting sweetness and the star anise has an odd, clean, licorice-like flavor that gives this sauce some real Asian street-cred (and actually writing or saying “street-cred” only gives it more 😛 ).
Now, add in the orange juice, tamarind paste, soy sauce, and molasses to the saucepan. Stir everything together and wonder if this will actually look good when you’re done with it.
At this point, your chicken should be ready to come out from under the broiler, fat rendered out and quite attractively cooked. Remove the chicken from the liquid and set aside. In a few minutes when cooled off and you have a spare moment, cut the chicken down into bite-sized pieces.
Back to your sauce. Grab an orange and zest the peel into your saucepan. Orange juice is flavorful, but the oils in the peel are even more potent and delicious and will last better through the cooking process. Save the wedges for a garnish or a side dish (I chose the latter, more on that later).
After about 15 minutes or so of simmering the sauce, fish out the whole spices and transfer everything to a food processor or a blender. Puree as finely as you can.
Now an interlude while my saucepan was empty and available: at this point, I thought I was adding some interesting texture to the dish, but in hindsight, I’d skip this part entirely (but it remains for your reading pleasure–suggestions?). I thought having some snipped scallions and a sliced pepper (in this case, I needed to get rid of a poblano) would give a nice crunch to the final dish. I diced up the pepper and scallions and fried them very briefly in the pan before continuing further. Perhaps I should have added them later in the process, but I was worried that they might have unbalanced flavors. In the end, they just sort of faded into the background–oh well.
Anyways, back to the sauce which has been sitting in your food processor, waiting patiently for you. Pour the pureed sauce into a strainer over the original saucepan. Things should come through the strainer fairly quickly. Heat this back up to a boil and then drop the heat down to a simmer.
With your food processor free again, make a paste out of about 2/3 of your cashews (just pulse the cashews with a little bit of liquid–the errant sauce already in there might be enough liquid). Then scrape this into your strained sauce. Also take this opportunity to add in the honey and tomato paste.
After about 5-10 minutes of simmering, your sauce should be looking pretty saucy rather than soupy. Periodically stir and take this opportunity to heat up a separate pan. Add a good sized knob of butter (e.g. 1/4 cup) and coarsely chop your remaining cashews. Toss these and a handful of sesame seeds into the butter for a minute or two. Then, toss in your cooked chicken tikka and let this cook for about 5 minutes.
Now, carefully pour the simmering sauce over the chicken. Let these two get to know each other on a low simmer for another 5 minutes or so, stirring so as to coat all of the chicken well.
I wanted a simple side that kept with some of the main flavors, so I simply cooked up some jasmine rice with some orange wedges (from the orange zested earlier) and a few cardamom pods added in from the start, steaming a really fragrant sweetness throughout the rice. Plus, a few bright orange slices bring some nice color to the plate.