Mother’s Favorite Chicken

Chicken Maivahlans

Chicken maivahlans fits into that category of baked dishes that are offered at nearly every stylish Bombay dinner party: all extravagant things in a cheesy, creamy sauce. (Maivahlans means “mother’s favorite.”) I didn’t understand why chicken maivahlans was treated with such reverence until I made it myself and realized what an extravagance it must have been in an India where raisins and nuts had become expensive imported luxuries following import restrictions.

This recipe is a distillation of several versions, with our own household’s additions and subtractions. The conventional Parsi way of serving chicken maivahlans is to break a whole egg for each eater on top of the creamy chicken and then bake it. I don’t like this approach for two reasons: You don’t really need that extra egg per person, and furthermore, by the time the cream and chicken are baked, rather than simply warmed up in the oven, the eggs are several stages beyond overcooked. A simple egg-and-cream custard topped with sliced almonds is very good, but this version, my favorite, captures the sweet and savory flavors of the chicken cooking liquid in the cream sauce.

The quantities here are for a baking dish large enough to serve eight to ten people, about the size of something you’d make lasagna in. You can assemble the elements ahead of time, leaving the beating of the egg whites and the final baking to the last hour or so before serving dinner. Let the dish stand for ten to fifteen minutes before eating it. As a great lover of room-temperature food, I don’t mind letting it stand for an hour.

Chicken maivahlans is very, very rich, so my favorite accompaniment is bitter greens cooked with ginger. Something like lacinato kale (an Italian heirloom kale) gives you the drama of a starkly contrasting color. Lightly dressed watercress or garden cress is a good option. You don’t need a starch because of the potatoes in the dish, but offer a crusty baguette for those who like to nibble on something alongside.

Dessert should be something sharp and tart—either a fruit ice such as pomegranate, which would be very much in the Persian mood, or oranges glacées, or just cold mandarins.

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Ingredients

Chicken

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 (2-inch-long) stick cinnamon or cassia
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 2 dried red chiles
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons Ginger-Garlic Paste
  • 2 pounds chicken thighs, or 1 (2- to 3-pound) chicken, cut into pieces
  • Salt to taste

Deep-Fried Components

  • Peanut or corn oil, for deep-frying
  • ¾ cup golden raisins (if possible, soaked in some Madeira or Marsala for a few days)
  • ¾ cup sliced pistachios or slivered almonds, plus more for sprinkling on top
  • 1 pound waxy potatoes (such as Yukon Gold), half-boiled, peeled, and cut into ½- inch cubes
  • 1 onion, very thinly sliced

Assembly and Toppings

  • Ghee or butter, for coating the dish
  • 8 hot green chiles, finely chopped
  • 2 to 3 cups chopped fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves and stems, to taste
  • Salt to taste
  • About 2 ½ cups heavy cream or creme fraîche
  • Madeira or Marsala to taste
  • 4 to 5 large eggs, separated
  • ¾ cup pine nuts or sliced almonds

Method

  • To make the chicken: Heat the oil in a large deep skillet over medium heat. Add the cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and red chiles and sizzle until their aromas are released. Add the onion and paste and sauté until the onions are soft, stirring occasionally. Brown the chicken separately in a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat in very little oil, to draw off as much of the fat as possible. Add the chicken to the onion. Pour in enough water to cover, salt lightly, and simmer till tender, about 25 minutes. Remove from the heat and adjust the seasonings. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove it, reserving the cooking liquid, and pull the flesh away from the bones, dividing it into small morsels (don’t worry about unevenness). Set aside.
  • For the fried components: While the chicken is cooking and cooling, organize a deep-frying setup. You’ll need a baking sheet lined with brown paper or paper towels and a wok, karhai, or any pan suitable for deep-frying several ingredients in succession, filled no more than half full with oil. Heat the oil to 375 degrees. Fry the raisins by lowering them into the oil in a wire strainer and removing them the moment they puff up. Drain them on the paper-lined baking sheet; they will deflate as they cool. Fry the nuts for a few seconds and drain. Fry the potatoes to a golden brown. Last, fry the sliced onion; the slices should be allowed to brown to a crisp without burning. Do them in two or three small batches instead of one big one.
  • To assemble the dish: Heat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly coat a large ovenproof baking dish with ghee.
  • Cover the bottom of the dish with a layer of chicken. Strew the chicken with half the potatoes, onions, raisins, and pistachios. To perk up the taste, sprinkle with half the green chiles and half the fresh coriander. Salt lightly. Cover with the remaining chicken and top with the remaining potatoes, onions, raisins, pistachios, chiles, and coriander. Salt lightly again.
  • To make the topping, first fish out the whole spices from the reserved chicken cooking liquid, which should be fairly thick from the onions. If it’s not, boil it a little longer to reduce it or thicken it with a little flour (about 1 to 2 tablespoons for 2 cups of liquid). Stir enough cream into this base to make about 3 cups of liquid in all. Salt to taste, add Madeira to taste, and pour this mixture over the chicken, making sure there’s enough to barely cover the surface. Whip the egg whites with a good pinch of salt until stiff. Lightly beat the yolks, stir into the whites, and spread over the top of the chicken, going all the way to the edges of the dish. Cover the surface with the pine nuts or sliced almonds.
  • Bake until puffed and golden brown, 40 minutes or so. The puffy, browned top will subside into a delicately crunchy crust.
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