Epic fail: Using equal amounts of coconut water and coconut milk for the Ishtu along with too much browning the meat darkens the color of the stew considerably. Although this tasted amazing, I would say less frying and more coconut milk. Friends, don’t do that! You would NEVER get the same effect.
Chicken Stew, or Ishtu, as its called, is a post I was thinking of when I was asked about the food of Kerala. This post has a history, and a lot of happy memories attached to it. A friend’s mother used to make this at home, and while said friend and I would be sitting on the dining table, she would bring out a large bowl of this, with fluffy, freshly made white Appams, straight off her special, for-Appams-only pan, the humble Appachatti. In her house, you would always smell the faint whiff of curry leaves and pepper and cinnamon, and she would always have lemon in her kitchen. When she was in a hurry, she would serve her meal with fluffy white bread, sourced from the local store nearby, a thick slab which would be cut in half, trimmed on the top, and lightly toasted.

To me, she was a Goddess. And I wanted to know how she made food. So I would sit with her and watch her cook, and while stirring her aviyal or sitting on a lawn chair with me by her side, she would sometimes talk about Palakkad, from where she hailed. Her husband, a Punjabi, and an absolute opposite of her in his food preference, would sometimes wrinkle his nose when she made her everyday vegetarian meals, what would be called, her “South Indian stuff”. But he would eat this Stew, or the Kerala Ishtu, with a squeeze of lemon freshly cut and served on the side, drain every drop of it, and clean the bowl with the last bit of crusty bread which he would retain on one side of the plate to make sure he got every single drop. He disliked Appams with a vengeance, and she never wanted to make him eat them, so there would always be some white bread on the side for him while we would tear the pristine purity of a fresh Appam and dip it into our stew, wrapping a piece of vegetable within its soft enclosure before popping them in our mouths. I still sigh sometimes when I think about those idyllic days of summer.

I make this recipe more when I get hold of fresh coconuts, not the very young daab, but rather the older, mature jhuno, which is perfect for grating. Sometimes I have added both coconut milk and coconut water to this, and it has tasted great too! I have made this recipe with chicken, mutton, and also, occasionally with just vegetables. I have to admit, I am not a big fan of the vegetarian version. Its meat all the way for me, and although mutton works great, chicken is perfect for this recipe. You can always use grated coconut or coconut milk powder or canned coconut milk for this recipe. It becomes very simple when you add that.

Also, this recipe is a part of the Kerala Theme at 94.3 Radio One Afternoon Show with RJ Arvind. He has, very kindly, asked a group of Kolkata food bloggers, like me, to share our experiences and recipes with him. I will be on air with him on Wednesday 17th July, 2013, and Friday 19th July, 2013 around 3. Do catch me there! There will be a number of other amazing food bloggers from Kolkata up in the next few weeks as well.

My Dark Ishtu. Sorry. This is NOT THE COLOR IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE. 

For the stew, take 500 gm. chicken cut in medium pieces, wash and set aside after applying a large pinch of salt. It is important that your chicken is with bone, as bones impart more flavor to the stew. In a large pot or kadhai, heat 2 tablespoon ghee or vegetable oil (and no, sorry but although the original recipe calls for coconut oil, I refuse to use it) and add 4 cloves, 4 cardamom, 2″ stick cinnamon, 10 peppercorns, 1 bay leaf, 2 dry red chillies (optional), all slightly bashed up, to it. Let sizzle for 20 seconds before adding 2 onions, cut into eighths, 10 garlic cloves, peeled and slightly bashed, 1 inch ginger, sliced lengthwise, and the chicken. Over high heat, sear the meat until the juices get sealed in, about 5-6 minutes. At this point, I sometimes sprinkle in 1 teaspoon of flour, that actually helps in stew-building, giving it a thicker texture. But if you are a purist, leave it off.

At this point, I put in 3-4 curry leaves, 4 slit green chillies, a small pinch of turmeric (completely optional, this!), and then introduce 2 cups of chopped vegetables. Over the years, I have included, apart from the mandatory cubes of carrots and potatoes, french beans, capsicum, drumsticks (shojne dNata, and yes, its AMAZING), peas, mushrooms, etc etc. Whatever floats your boat, add it I say. But don’t forget the carrot and potatoes. They are my heart. And yes, you SHOULD add them. Because otherwise, what’s the point of having this delicious stew?

Now add 2 cups of water, let it come to a boil, cover , and cook over simmering heat till the potatoes are soft and about to fall apart. It will take about 25-30 minutes to do so. Once that happens, bring the stew to a high heat, and reduce the water content considerably. Then, add 3/4th cup coconut milk, preferably fresh, and immediately simmer the stew. Here, there are two options. I like mixing light coconut milk or a 50:50 combination of coconut water and milk, as I don’t like the overpowering smell of coconut too much, but you can add heavy coconut milk, or even a mixture of coconut milk and cream together to make this really rich.

Let the coconut milk get acquainted with the stew, turn off the heat, and add 1 tablespoon ghee on top with a big pinch of ground pepper, and cover the pan. Walk away for 10 minutes. You need this time to let the pepper come together with the rest of the ingredients. Once that happens, remove cover, and ladle into bowls, and serve with soft Appams, or thick white chunks of bread.

Its food fit for the Gods indeed.

Written by Poorna Banerjee

Leave a Comment