Even as a non-Muslim, I love Ramadan, and as I’ve been celebrating it with Shan for the last five years I’m starting to feel that it’s my tradition as well. I feel that believers and non-believers alike can appreciate the sentiment of the holy month: to reflect, to be thankful, to avoid negativity. I enjoy the peaceful days and the fun evenings with friends. During this month the evening meal, Iftar, is kind of a big deal, so all month I am cooking exclusively Pakistani.
The meal: It is traditional to open the fast with a date as did the prophet (Shan is very picky and does not like dates, and so opens with salt, also acceptable). Then we have pakoras, which are potatoes or other vegetables battered in besam (chickpea flour) and fried, and watermelon. We have delicious sweet drinks like Rooh Afza or some concoction of peaches, Fanta and milk that our friend Mansoor has been mixing up. Then round two – whatever entree we’ve got going – and finishing up with milk tea.
This is a spiced, rich and stewy chicken dish. It had me at Zafrani – saffron – which I love although I don’t cook with it often ($$$). “Balti” means bucket, and refers to the type of pot that this dish is traditionally cooked in. It’s apparently quite popular in the UK although I have not heard of it here in the US, but Shan and Mansoor seemed to know what it was so I took that as a sign.
I’ll go ahead and rewrite the recipe since I have a couple of different “western” techniques – I don’t know that they are western in particular, but just things I like to do differently. Namely, I salt the onions in the beginning so they sweat as well as adding salt later if I need to (but probably less in the end than your average Pakistani, at least the ones I know). I realize the onions brown better if you don’t salt them, but they also take longer, and I’ve never really noticed much of a difference so really I think you can do whichever you prefer. Also, instead of paste I like to use fresh garlic and ginger, and add the garlic at the same time as the onions so it can cook. Finally, none of the recipes I’ve seen have put an emphasis on browning the meat, but I think by carmelizing it a bit you really get a better flavor than by essentially just boiling the meat.
Recipe: Balti Zafrani Chicken
2 tbsp butter
1/4 c oil – by this point you realize this is not diet food
1 onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
One whole chicken, cut into 1-2 inch pieces – the original recipes calls for one lb of boneless cubes, but we usually get the bone-in variety and this is fine
One inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp red pepper – add more to taste
2 tbsp ground almonds – what a lovely way to thicken the sauce!
3/4 c yogurt
1/2 tsp saffron threads, crumbled
1/2 tsp allspice – a nice alternative to cinnamon!
2 tbsp cream
2 tbsp lemon juice
On high heat, melt the butter in the oil, and fry the onion until translucent and starting to turn golden brown. When the onion is almost done, toss in the garlic so that it can cook and not burn. Add chicken, ginger, black and red pepper, and fry for 5 minutes or so.
Stir it up, cover, and simmer on medium heat until chicken is cooked through, stirring occasionally and especially not letting it stick. In the meantime, warm the cream and combine with the saffron and allspice. When the chicken is cooked through (it should be very tender, almost falling off the bone), add the cream mixture and the lemon juice.
Cook a minute longer, garnish with cilantro and serve.
This turned out delicate and fragrant, really delicious. You can serve it with warm naan or as I did with pulao (lightly spiced rice and onions). I roasted some carrots with cumin as well and we had a very nice Iftar.