Village Boys’ Chicken

The story behind the name of this easy curry is that it’s the kind of dish that village boys who have stolen a neighbor’s chicken would cook up for themselves. I learned it from a generous-hearted friend in Rangoon, as well as a similar version from Cho Cho in her village near Bagan.

In Burma this is usually made with calabash, a kind of gourd that is peeled and cut into bite-sized cubes. I like to use chayote, which is now available in North American groceries, but you can use winter melon or potato if you prefer. With four dried red chiles, the sauce in this curry has a kick; for less heat, remove the chile seeds.

I like to serve this with broccoli rabe or baby bok choi, lightly dressed with a vinaigrette. Another possibility when tomatoes are in season is a simple salad of chopped tomatoes. Or serve it hot over rice.

Ingredients

  • One 2½- to 3-pound chicken, preferably free-range, chopped into small pieces (see Note), liver reserved, or substitute pounds legs and breasts, chopped into pieces

Spice Rub

  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon turmeric
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 3 or 4 dried red chiles, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes and drained
  • ¼ cup peanut oil
  • ½ cup minced shallots
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed, smashed, and cut into 2-inch lengths
  • About 3 cups water
  • 4 cups bite-sized cubes chayote or winter melon
  • Fish sauce or soy sauce (optional)

Method

Rinse the chicken pieces thoroughly with cold water, then pat dry. Place in a wide bowl, add the rub ingredients, and turn and mix so the chicken is well coated. Set aside for 10 minutes, loosely covered.

Meanwhile, if you have a mortar, pound the garlic and ginger together to make a paste; set aside. Remove the stems from the soaked chiles, and discard the seeds if you wish (they give extra heat). Chop the chiles and pound to a coarse paste in the mortar, or finely mince; set aside.

Heat the oil in a wide skillet or a wok over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 30 seconds, then add the chiles and lemongrass and stir. Add the chicken pieces, along with the liver if you have it, stir, and cook briefly. Remove the liver after 2 minutes or so, when it is just cooked; set aside. Continue cooking and stirring until most of the surfaces of the chicken pieces have changed color, then add about 2 cups of water (you want it half an inch deep or so), cover, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.

If the water level seems too low, add another ½ cup or more and bring back to a boil. Add the chayote or melon cubes and cook at a medium boil until tender and the chicken is cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Taste for salt, and add fish sauce or soy sauce, if needed. If you have the liver, add it just before serving.

A Note on Chopped Chicken: I prefer that the chicken be chopped into small pieces, about 10 pieces to the pound. That translates into the following: Chop each drumstick into 2 pieces, the thighs into 3; split the breasts and cut each half-breast into 4 pieces; and chop the wings into 2 pieces. If you are lucky enough to have a good butcher, ask him or her to chop a whole chicken into small pieces, otherwise, use kitchen shears or a sharp cleaver to cut it up. Rinse off the chopped chicken thoroughly to get rid of stray shards of bone, then pat dry.

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