In our cooking series Quickies, we invite chefs, bartenders, and other personalities in the world of food and drink who are serious hustlers to share their tips and tricks for preparing quick, creative after-work meals. Every dish featured in Quickies takes under 30 minutes to make, but without sacrificing any deliciousness—these are tried-and-tested recipes for the super-busy who also happen to have impeccable taste.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2017.
Chef Yohini Nandakumar's go-to, easy dinner is the 30-minute Sri Lankan chicken curry of her childhood. It's the dish her parents would make when time was tight and something that Nandakumar continued to cook when she left home. But the chef and co-founder of South East London restaurant Sparrow has a confession. She hasn't cooked it for a while.
"Growing up, my mum or dad would often happily put together two curries and anything we didn't eat went in the fridge. The next day we'd have four curries. And the day after, we'd have six," she says while gathering ingredients for the curry in Sparrow's kitchen. "When they were working a lot, though, this is a delicious, absolutely inauthentic, 'all-in-one' dish my mum used to make and I continued to cook in my twenties."
She admits: "But I haven't made it for about a year now."
It's not surprising, though. As well as launching the neighbourhood restaurant earlier this year and working the pass during service, Nandakumar has been holding up her other day job is a lawyer.
"I decided to leave private practice about four years ago because I'd look at all the partners in the law firm, and they lived and breathed the law. They would totally read all the articles in bed because it's what they loved, but that just wasn't what I wanted to do," says Nandakumar. "I was figuring out what it was that I wouldn't mind spending my free time on because I loved it that much.
She continues: "The most obvious thing was cooking. I'd be at work then go home and I'd cook. I'd either have friends over or if not, I'd spend three hours making a meal for me to eat in ten minutes."
After staging for six months at London restaurants like St. John (where she met now-husband and Sparrow co-founder Terry Blake), Nandakumar returned to law as an in-house lawyer. On the side, she hosted pop-ups, market stalls, and supper clubs before opening Sparrow with Blake.
Back to the task at hand, Nandakumar fries a thinly sliced onion, stirring only occasionally so that it browns.
"The onion can take a long time but you need to get it right," warns Nandakumar. "It might take ten minutes but everything else will only take 20, so you can still cook the dish in half an hour. I used to cook this when I'd come straight from work or the gym and only had half an hour to get ready to go out. Plus, while the onions are cooking, you can get ready."
When the onions are golden brown, Nandakumar adds mustard seeds, garlic, and ginger. As they turn dark brown, in goes roasted curry powder, tomato paste, chicken, sweet potato, water, and coconut powder.
"Using roasted curry powder gives a more balanced, rounded flavour than just plain curry powder. But if you can't get hold of it, just cook normal curry powder for a few minutes in a dry saucepan," says Nandakumar, while the mixture simmers. "And the nice thing about coconut milk powder is that you have a lot more control over it because it's not a liquid. So if you want a really mild curry, you don't have to add two cans of coconut milk to a small portion of chicken. You can just add however much water you want and then copious quantities of coconut milk powder and you get something that's really creamy."
The last stage of making the curry is to turn up the heat and add whatever vegetables you have on hand. Today, Nandakumar stirs through frozen peas and a handful of spinach. She adds lime juice to bring out the curry's vibrant flavours.
RECIPE: Simple Chicken Curry
"You can garnish the curry with coriander and serve with rice," says Nandakumar. "I grew up having white basmati rice and loved it. But about five years ago, when I'd visit my parents, they started serving this traditional red rice which just started being imported to the UK from Sri Lanka. It's a lovely wholegrain, really nutritious rice."
She continues: "You can definitely use white basmati but I think if you're trying to make something every day for yourself, then you should be focusing more on what nutrients you're getting out of your food, rather than how many calories are in a bowl."
We'll happily eat this delicious, nutritious chicken curry seven days a week, thanks.