From the grease on your fingers to the crumbs on your lips, fried chicken can evoke childhood memories from almost anyone. Even me. Sometimes I have a fried chicken craving from my youth. Unfortunately, my family were not, by nature, fried chicken eaters. At the Lehail house, KFC was the be-all end-all of special occasions. Buckets of chicken — with its famous blend of 11 herbs and spices — along with coleslaw, macaroni salad, fries, and biscuits, made appearances on occasions like New Year’s Eve/Day. Relatives and family friends were prerequisites.
KFC and I have a brittle relationship. I remember when the twins (my brother Paul and sister Ajit) graduated from grade seven. Their class had a celebratory dinner in the elementary school’s gymnasium. Our school was right across the street from our house. My older sister Ronnie was allowed (by the twins) to attend. But not me. Since I am six years junior to the twins, by default, I was perceived as a pest. Let’s just say there was a constant struggle of me wanting to be included in their “cool crowd” and them adamantly shunning me, because I was a “little kid.”
To make a long story short, while the twins and Ronnie were partaking in the festivities I was up to my usual school yard adventures. As I played, I saw the twins’ friends and their younger siblings heading to the event. I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to be included. My friend Les, whose sister was also graduating, came out to tell me KFC was being served for dinner. It was all downhill from there. Curious as I was, I tried to look for my sisters or brother, hoping they would let me in. No luck. Instead, their friends saw me and came over to see if I wanted some KFC (Okay, I probably prompted them to give me some).
That was the tipping point for trouble. My siblings quickly found out, escorted me home replete with a thorough scolding. The kicker: they told my parents. Well, the rest was the opposite of fun, so I’ll leave that part to your imagination. For years, I was teased about the incident. Admittedly, I was embarrassed for years (I am kind of blushing as I write this). Looking back though, I was just a six year old, looking to fit in and wanting to curb my need to eat more fried chicken.
This drama with KFC is the reason behind perfecting this recipe for Finger Lickin’ Fried Chicken. See the title correlation (these things don’t just happen on their own)? This recipe honours classic fried chicken while embracing newer techniques and an influx of flavours picked up along the way. These flavours that I speak of take a nod or two from the South Indian, Chicken 65 (a dish that a has food cult following). Interesting factoid: this intensely spicy variation of fried chicken, became popular in 1965 at the famous Buhari hotel in Chennai. (There are other theories about Chicken 65’s name, but this one makes the most logical sense.)
The secret to my fried chicken is in the layering: The chicken drumsticks are marinated in a spicy, salty brine, then soaked in a delicious buttermilk base, then dredged with flour and spices, fried, and finally slathered with a fiery tamarind sauce to create a crunchy, peppery coating. One bite into the burnished crispy crust reveals first a tangy crunch, and then a deeper, complex spice that leaves a lingering fire and spice behind. It blows the Colonel’s famous blend of 11 herbs and spices out of the water.
Okay, so usually when I write about anything fried, there is much apprehension. Let me tell you it is way easier to fry chicken drumsticks than make a turkey dinner (you probably just did that a few days ago). What I love best, is that this chicken will adapt. Brine one night, finish the next. Now that’s living.
If you are thinking you can skip brining. Stop. The brining step needs to happen, especially since this spicy aromatic brine adds huge flavour. Then the buttermilk marinade adds even more depth. Next the crust adds a richness that brings the tamarind chili sauce and juicy chicken together in an ecstatic climax.
Fried chicken has always been a treat and while this recipe has multiple steps, nothing is complicated. It’s a bunch of soaking, dredging with seasoned flour, and then frying. Really super easy. The chicken must not be refrigerator-cold when it goes into the pot for frying. Give it an hour to get to room-temperature before you start frying.
There is a misnomer about frying chicken. There is no need to purchase a deep fryer. Yes, your read that correctly. This fried chicken can happen in a 6-quart Dutch oven or heavy bottom pot. You don’t need to be afraid. The oil will remain under control at all times because it should only be two inches high. Follow your eye, use that as a gauge, not a measured quantity. It doesn’t take litres of oil to make fried chicken.
Finally, the frying aftermath, do not ruin your experience by biting into hot fried chicken. It should never be eaten piping hot. When fried chicken comes out of the oil, sprinkle with Himalayan salt and then allow the steam-cooking inside the crust to finish, while the juices redistribute. Usually the wait is about 10 minutes. Then drizzle with the tamarind chili sauce. Don’t forget to share, especially with any six year old fried chicken lovers and get eating.
>Finger Lickin’ Fried Chicken
For the Brine
¾ cup salt
½ cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
5 garlic cloves
2 inch piece of ginger
4 red chilies
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
5 cardamom pods, slightly crushed
1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole mustard seeds
2½ to 3 pounds chicken drumsticks
Bring the salt, sugar, spices, aromatics and 4 cups of water to a boil in a large pot, stirring occasionally, until the salt and sugar dissolve, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow to cool completely before adding 12 cups of cold water. Add the chicken to the brine and place in the refrigerator overnight.
2 cups buttermilk
2 teaspoons whole peppercorns, toasted
2 teaspoons coriander seed, coarsely ground
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon turmeric
2 tablespoon cayenne powder
1½ tablespoons sugar
The next day, remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry. Place the spice mixture and sugar in a large bowl with the buttermilk. Add the chicken and toss in the marinade. Cover and refrigerator for 2 hours.
Spiced Flour Dredge
3 cups of flour
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon cayenne powder
1 tablespoon garam masala
To fry the chicken, pour enough canola oil in a 6-quart Dutch oven or heavy bottom pot until it reaches a depth of 2 inches. Heat the oil until a deep-fry thermometer reads 350°.
While the oil is heating, place the flour mixture in a large bowl. Toss the chicken pieces in the flour until every piece is evenly coated. Allow the chicken to absorb the flour, about 10 minutes. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour again. Fry the chicken in batches until crisp, golden brown and the meat has cooked through. Usually this takes from 6 to 10 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a wire rack. Season with Himalayan salt, wait 10 minutes and then serve with the Tamarind Chili Sauce.
Tamarind Chili Sauce
¼ quarter onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 chili peppers, finely minced
1/3 cup tamarind concentrate
4 tablespoons jaggery
¼ to ½ cup water
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
¼ teaspoon salt
In a sauce pan, heat the vegetable oil and sauté the shallots and garlic for 2 minutes until translucent. Add in the chili peppers and cook for an additional minute. Add the tamarind concentrate, jaggery, and water. Continue cooking over medium-low heat while stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Lower the heat and gently simmer until the sauce has thickened. Adjust sauce thickness by adding more water.