I got this recipe from Parinitha Manudeva who, along with her husband, run the Devangi Athithya, a bed and breakfast in Thirthahalli, a small town along the Tunga river in the forested mountainside near Shimoga, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. The cuisine of the area is robust and full of flavor, making liberal use of spices, fruit from the nearby forest, game meat, and river fish. A local specialty of especial pride are the kaadu koli, or forest fowl, that you can occasionaly see sprinting through the undergrowth, tail feathers proudly sprung. I spent many hours with Parinitha poring over her old recipe books while she patiently (and slowly) recounted recipes to me in Kannada and told me about all the things that make the local cuisine so special.
Saaru, though the word is used widely throughout Karnataka, can describe a variety of different dishes. Some of these are thin broths, flavored heartily with spices but thickened with no more than a handful of lentils or herbs. Others, like this version, are rich, thick, and decadent. Parinita explained that though she often makes this dish with chicken, she’s just as likely to make it with young goat meat (called “mutton” in many parts of India), vegetables like potatoes or cauliflower, or even avarekayi, the small fava-like beans that are hugely popular with local cooks in their season.
The addition of grated coconut to the dish after it has finished cooking is a common trick with local cooks, often used when preparing leaner cuts of meat to add a little fat back to the dish. Wild boar meat, for example, is fatty and well-marbled during the monsoon when the beasts have plenty to eat, and lean and stringy in the summers when it’s slim pickings on the forest floor, so similar dishes made with wild boar are often finished with some coconut in the summer for a little added unctuousness.
I’ve adapted the recipe to use only chicken thighs, since they stay moister and I think they have a heartier flavor, more appropriate for the dish, but feel free to use a mix of white and dark meat, or all white meat if you prefer. White meat will take less time to cook so make sure to adjust your cooking times accordingly.
A note on chicken fat: I like to render the fat, or schmaltz, out of the chicken thighs and use it to cook the aromatics for this recipe. It doesn’t make a tremendous difference in taste, though it is a good-flavored cooking oil, is an economical gesture, and most importantly, it gives the cook a little something to snack on later! If you don’t have the patience to take the skin off the chicken thighs and render the fat out of it, feel free to use skinless chicken thighs.
Chicken Saaru with Black Pepper and Cilantro
Recipe courtesy Parinitha Manudeva
6 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
1 large onion
5–6 large cloves garlic, peeled
4–5 fresh green chiles
1-inch piece fresh ginger
2 tbsp black pepper
3 tbsp coriander seeds
2 bunches cilantro leaves, washed and dried
1 1-inch piece cinnamon
2 tsp ghee
1 onion, sliced thinly through the root
1 medium tomato, cut into 1/2-inch dice
½ tsp turmeric
1 cup fresh grated coconut or frozen grated coconut, defrosted
Skin the chicken by holding firmly onto the skin with one hand and pulling it away from the meat.
Salt the chicken thighs and set aside until ready to use. Place the chicken skin in a small sauté pan and place in a 350°F oven for 30–40 minutes until well browned and all the fat has rendered out of it. Take care not to burn it.
Set the chicken skin aside (perhaps as a snack for later!) and transfer the rendered fat to a high-sided 10-inch sauté pan. Heat over medium-high heat till the fat begins to shimmer.
Add the ginger, garlic, black pepper, coriander, cilantro leaves, cinnamon, and cloves.
Sauté for 4–5 minutes until the cilantro is wilted and you can smell the ginger, garlic, and the spices.
Transfer the contents of the pan to a blender or food processor and blend to a smooth paste, adding a small quantity of water if needed to help the mixture move around the processor bowl or blender jar. Make sure that the spices are completely blended.
Clean out the pan with a paper towel and add 2 tsp of ghee to the pan and heat over medium-high heat until the ghee begins to shimmer.
Add the onions and cook till soft and translucent before adding the diced tomatoes, turmeric, and a pinch of salt. Cook till the tomatoes have broken down and have combined with the onions to form the beginnings of a sauce.
Add the cilantro purée back to the pan along with a generous teaspoon of salt, 1 cup of water, and the reserved chicken thighs. Turn the chicken pieces once or twice to make sure that they are completely coated with the sauce.
Let the liquid come to a boil and then reduce the heat in the pan to its lowest setting. Cook, covered, on the stovetop for 40 minutes to an hour until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce slightly reduced. Alternately, you can place the covered pan in a 325°F oven for an hour. Check for seasoning and adjust salt and black pepper as needed.
Stir in the grated coconut and cook for another 5–10 minutes over low heat.