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.
Is fried chicken better when it's made with love? We're about to find out in the MUNCHIES test kitchen when Nik Sharma stops by on a sunny-but-blustery early October day. He's a little jet-lagged after flying in from his home in Oakland, California as part of a whirlwind tour to promote his first cookbook, Season, and after this, he's going to Martha Stewart Living. "She won't really be there, right?" he wonders nervously. But how cool would it be if she was? For the next half hour, though, maybe-Martha will have to wait because there's curry leaf popcorn chicken to be made.
"I feel like every country kind of does fried chicken in their own way," says Sharma, who first burst onto the food scene with his blog, A Brown Table, before adding a column in the The San Francisco Chronicle to his repertoire. "Frying is something that’s international across cultures. Everybody loves deep-fried." But this particular dish isn't about everybody.
"This was for my husband, because my husband is from the South and he loooves fried chicken," Sharma explains. "Actually, he loves anything fried, but fried chicken is his thing." That's adorable. Now let's get to it.
First, a quick caveat: The work you'll do to make this popcorn chicken takes less than 30 minutes, all told. However, you'll need to account for marinating time. We suggest making the marinade and cutting up the chicken in the morning so it can spend all day soaking up up the seasonings. Then, when you get home, you're mere minutes away from the most flavorful fried chicken we've ever had. That's right, we went there. If it's already almost dinner time and you just gotta have the chicken tonight, Sharma says you can get away with marinating it for as little as an hour if you cut the pieces pretty small, think about half the size of what we're showing here.
If you're looking to cut down on day-of prep even more, you can put together the spice mixture up to a week in advance. All that means is toasting cardamom, coriander, cumin seeds, and the peppercorns in a hot skillet. This goes fast—less than a minute. In the time it takes for everyone to ooh and ahh over how amazing it smells when the essential oils from the cardamom are released, Sharma is done toasting and takes the mixture off the heat. Half gets reserved for the breading and half gets tossed into a blender with the rest of the marinade ingredients: buttermilk, serrano chiles, scallions, curry leaves, garlic, cayenne, ginger, lime juice, and more salt thank you think you need—"because it helps with the penetration," Sharma says slyly before bursting into laughter at his own middle school sense of humor.
The flavors clearly and intentionally harken back to Sharma's childhood in Mumbai, as do most of the recipes in Season, but he's careful to clarify that respect for the past doesn't have to involve a deference to way things used to be. "At the end of the day, I just want people to look at ingredients as ingredients and flavor, versus people getting all bogged up in sort of mysterious, mythical tradition," he says.
The marinade mixture is blended until smooth and then transferred to a plastic bag with one-inch cubes of chicken. While this sets, you can also prep the dredging mixture by mixing the rest of the spices (ground in a mortar and pestle) with flour, baking powder, baking soda, more cayenne, and salt in another plastic bag. Now, go to work, or whatever else you do all day.
MAKE THIS: Curry Leaf Popcorn Chicken
Frying can be intimidating, but Sharma made it look easy. He heated a couple inches of oil in the bottom of a Dutch oven while adding chicken chunks to the bag full of the flour mixture. Once the bag is sealed, he shook it around shake-weight style and quickly fried up batches of the chicken, just a couple minutes at a time. When that was all done, and we'd all burned our mouths stealing bites off the drying rack, he tossed a couple of curry leaves into the oil for a crispy garnish.
When Sharma set out to write his first cookbook he made the whole thing more difficult on himself than it had to be by developing all new recipes. "My logic has always been that if I’ve already put it on the blog, there’s no point in me asking people to buy it in a book. You can get it for free, that’s not fair. So I decided that I would create everything new for the book." Beyond that, he wanted recipes that no one else had made either. "That was my strategy for the book, if someone else has done it, I’m not going to do it." The result is inventive combinations like the sort-of-spicy maple syrup vinegar sauce that he drizzled over the finished fried chicken. Trust us, it was amazing. But you won't find the recipe anywhere but in the book.
After we tasted the finished product—which was somehow crispy and delicate and unctuous and sharp all at the same time—we had to know: Does Sharma's husband like this version better than his mother's fried chicken, which was reportedly made with pork fat?
"I want to say he likes this more," Sharma says.