Kerala Coconut Chicken Curry

Preparation info

  • Difficulty


  • Serves

    6 to 8

    as part of a rice-based meal

Appears in

Seductions of Rice

By Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

Published 1998

  • About

There is a familiar joke told in India about Kerala, where this chicken curry comes from, that Kerala’s largest export is people and their brains. Kerala is a unique state. It has the highest population density in India, and it has by far the highest literacy rate, especially for women. It is not unusual to meet Keralese doctors, engineers, and lawyers outside of India, as well as in other parts of the country. There is some truth to the joke.

As you fly into Kerala, the first thing you see from the plane is a huge sea of coconut palms. You don’t see paddies, you don’t see villages, all you see is coconut trees. Kerala has a lot of coconut trees, and relatively little large-scale agriculture. It’s no wonder that so many people must look elsewhere for work.

It is also no accident that Keralese food uses coconut in so many dishes. Coconuts and coconut oil (and palm oil) have had a lot of bad press in the last few years because of their relatively high level of saturated fat, but this bad press has gone a little overboard, fueled in part perhaps by the competitors of these products. Coconut milk curries, whether from South India or Thailand, are some of our favorite foods. If it comes down to a choice between a hunk of cheese or a coconut milk curry, we’ll take the curry.

For this curry, the ingredients list is long but the recipe is easy and delicious. The dish is hot, but not burning, with a full-flavored broth that makes a great accompaniment to rice. For less heat, reduce the number of dried chiles to two and the number of green chiles to three.


Masala paste

  • 4 dried red chiles, each broken into 2 or 3 pieces
  • tablespoons coriander seed
  • ¼ teaspoon cumin seed
  • ¼ teaspoon anise seed
  • ½ teaspoon white poppy seed
  • ¼ teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 inch cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
  • 5 cloves
  • 2 green cardamom pods, smashed
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons water
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil or ghee
  • ½ teaspoon mustard seed
  • 3 to 4 dried curry leaves
  • 2 onions, thinly sliced
  • tablespoons minced ginger
  • 6 green cayenne chiles or 8 large jalapeño chiles, cut lengthwise in half and seeded
  • ¾ cup water
  • 2 whole chicken breasts (2 to 2½ pounds)
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar or cider vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 2 cups canned coconut milk, separated into 1 cup thinner and 1 cup creamier milk
  • 3 to 4 waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into ¾-inch cubes


In a small bowl, combine the dried chiles, the coriander, cumin, anise and poppy seeds, the peppercorns, cinnamon stick, cloves, and cardamom. Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When it is hot, toss in the spices and dry-roast, stirring constantly with a wooden spatula to prevent burning, for about 1 minute, or until aromatic and starting to brown. Transfer to a spice grinder or mortar and grind to a powder. Return to the small bowl, stir in the turmeric, and add just enough water to form a dry paste. Set aside.

In a large heavy pot, heat the oil or ghee over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seed and curry leaves, stir briefly, then cover until the mustard seeds have popped. Add the onions, ginger, and green chiles and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions soften and become translucent. Add the masala paste and stir to distribute well. Add ¼ cup of the water and cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently.

Meanwhile, with a heavy cleaver, cut each chicken breast in half, then chop each half into 4 pieces.

Add the chicken to the pot and sauté over medium-high heat until it is starting to brown, turning to expose all sides to the heat, about 5 minutes. Add the vinegar, salt, and garlic. Stir and cook for 1 minute longer.

Mix the 1 cup thinner coconut milk with the remaining ¼ cup water. Add to the chicken, bring to a boil, and simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes.

Add the potatoes and simmer until tender, another 20 minutes or so. Stir in the remaining (thicker) coconut milk and remove from the heat. Serve hot with plain rice.