How hard is it to knock a coconut over? … or chicken, coriander and coconut curry

Food & drink
A Keralen chicken, coriander and coconut curry, from Christine Manfield’s Tasting India.

It was the school fair on Saturday, and among the bouncy castles, secondhand toy stalls and pop-up cafes selling the most excellent pakora wraps with fiendish chilli sauce, there was a coconut shy.

The rules of a coconut shy are very simple – throw a ball at a coconut perched on top of a stake, knock it off, keep the coconut.

Now, remember that this is a primary school, and the kids are quite little, so they found it quite hard to actually knock the coconuts over.

The coconut shy did decent business, but there wasn’t a noticeable number of kids wandering around proudly clutching a coconut, puzzling over how the hell they were going to smash it open.

As the idyllic, hot afternoon wore on, it became obvious that the enormous pile of coconuts used to supply the shy wasn’t diminishing, which presents a problem for the stall holder … so the rules were gradually, shall we say, relaxed.

Lara stepped up to the line at about the time that the rules had descended into something basically resembling ‘pay 50p, throw a ball in the general direction of a coconut and you’re a winner! Whoop! We’ve got an expensive AV system to pay for!’

So, mission:accomplished. We had a coconut, that was swiftly turned into a curry.

This is a Keralan dish, from the south of India, a little removed from the normal Rajasthani, Punjabi or Kasmiri dishes I tend to favour, and it shows a different side to India’s endlessly varied cuisine. It’s heavy on coriander seed and chilli, which makes it wildly powerful and aromatic, but tempered with the cooling milkiness of coconut. I promise to cook more from the southern parts of the sub-continent.

There’s a real knack to opening up a coconut. I smashed Lara’s with a cleaver – the brute force method works, but it’s messy – but the smart way is to use a screwdriver to pierce one of the three ‘eyes’, drain the milk into a jug, then lightly tap the equator for the nut with a hammer or the back of a heavy knife … after a while, the coconut will magically fall apart. To remove the flesh from the shell, just make V-shaped cuts in the meat and pop each section out. It’s a laborious and boring job, but it’s the best way to do it.

One coconut should yield about 300g of white coconut meat … place all of it into a food processor (don’t bother peeling off the brown skin from the meat), and blitz it up so that it’s processed to small pieces, as if they’d been grated.

Add 300ml of water, and process again. Pour the coconut and the newly made milk out through a sieve and save the liquid, pressing down to strain as much as possible. Scrape the coconut back into the food processor and add 500ml of water this time, repeating the process, but catching the thinner milk in a separate bowl.

There you go – one bowl of thick coconut milk, one of thin.

Mix together six (yes, six …) tablespoons of ground coriander, a tablespoon of chilli powder, half a teaspoon of turmeric and a teaspoon of ground fennel in a bowl with a splash of water, just enough to make a paste.

Pour the thin coconut milk into a big pan, add the spice paste and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring so that the spices are evenly dissolved in the milk. Add a chicken that’s been jointed and cut up into medium-sized pieces to the milk, along with a teaspoon of salt, cover the pan, turn down the heat and cook for twenty-five minutes.

To get the right sized chicken pieces, I jointed a medium-sized chicken into legs, wings, things and breasts, all on the bone, then chopped the legs, thighs and wings in half, and the breast into four, all straight through the bone.

Whilst the chicken is cooking, slice up about 250g of red onions and fry them in vegetable oil in a frying pan, until they’re evenly cooked and just starting to crisp. Drain the onions out onto a plate, and reserve the oil.

The chicken should be cooked by now. Heat the frying pan up again, fish the chicken pieces out of the sauce and use the reserved oil to brown them slightly, just enough to give them a nice, appetising tinge. Fry all the chicken pieces like this, then slide them back into the sauce, adding the other bowl of thicker coconut milk and half of the fried onions, as well.

Don’t let the sauce come up to the boil, now, just let it heat through, then serve with the rest of the fried onions sprinkled over the top with a good handful of chopped coriander.

Eat with basmati rice, or roti.

This recipe is from Christine Manfield’s beautiful Tasting India.