Please Sir. I want some more.
~Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

Happy birthday, Mr. Dickens.

Today, Britain marked the birth bicentenary of Charles Dickens with a wreathlaying at his grave in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. The church congregation included what may have been the most prodigious gathering of the revered novelist’s descendants. Simultaneously, a street party and ceremonies were held in his native Portsmouth. Ralph Fiennes, who will star as Magwitch in the adaptation of Great Expectations, read a moving extract from another of Dickens’ most beloved novels, Bleak House. The venerated Victorian author was an almost incomparable inventor of character, both ordinary and grand. His prolific pen authored numerous novels and other writings, all resonating with humanity and compassion. A deft storyteller, Dickens skewered wretched and greedy affluence, depicted the misery of poverty, and explored such varied themes as needed educational reform, sordid workplaces, class diparity, dismal childhoods, and destructive guilt, loneliness and despair. No slight to Shakespeare, Chaucer and esteemed ilk, but this is Dickens’ day.

Most know that Dickens coined “scrooge” (miserliness) and “uriah heep” (insincerity), but he is also the creator of “pecksniffian” named after Seth Pecksniff, a character in the novel Martin Chuzzlewit. The definition: hypocritically affecting benevolence or high moral principles (e.g., pompous politicians).

Over six decades after the end of British colonial rule in India, the works of Charles Dickens continue to be studied and taught across the sub-continent. The issues he addressed in his works–caste inequity, social injustice and poverty–repercuss in the modern world.

India had long ago exported the flavors of chutney, mustard, pepper, and curry to loyal (and perceptive) followers in the isles. Since imperial times, Indian fare and British gastronomy have been inextricably intertwined. About the time of Dicken’s birth, the first Indian restaurant opened in London and by the time of his death, curry was well entrenched in the country’s cuisine. This is not to say Dickens had a penchant for curry even though food passages abound in his novels.

Indian restaurants began to really proliferate in London in the 1960’s — flock wallpaper and spicy hues, tablas, biryanis, naan, and vindaloos, with piped sitars and seductive curry aromas wafting throughout. Decades later, foreign minister Robin Cook even proclaimed chicken tikka masala, arguably the most favored curry there, “is now a true British national dish.” No, not Sunday roast or Yorkshire pudding or fish and chips, but CTM.

CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA

1 T cumin seeds
1 T coriander seeds
1 t mustard seeds

2 t dried chili flakes
1 T ground turmeric
2 t garam masala
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 2 1⁄2″ piece ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed and finely chopped
2 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into chenks
1 1/2 C Greek yogurt
Sea salt

3 T unsalted butter
2 small to medium yellow onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 T paprika
2 t coriander
1 t cumin
1 t mustard seeds
1 can whole peeled tomatoes, chopped
1 t garam masala
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 C heavy whipping cream
1/2 C plain yogurt

Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Basmati rice
Naan

Soak bamboo skewers in water.

In a dry heavy bottomed skillet, heat the cumin, coriander and mustard seeds over medium low heat for a couple of minutes. Grind the cumin and coriander seeds and set aside for the sauce later. Grind the mustard seeds for the chicken marinade with red pepper flakes in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. In a food processor or blender, purée turmeric, cumin, coriander, mustard, garam masala, garlic, ginger, jalapeños, and slowly add water until a loose paste forms. In a bowl, stir together half of the paste, yogurt, and salt thoroughly. Rub into the chicken and marinate, covered, in the refrigerator overnight. Reserve the remaining paste for later.

Remove chicken from the refrigerator so it reaches close to room temperature. Prepare charcoal grill to medium heat. Thread the chicken pieces through skewers. Grill chicken until just done, about 2 minutes per side, then arrange on platter and tent with foil. Do not worry if the chicken is slightly undercooked, as it will cook more in the sauce.

Meanwhile, heat butter in a heavy saucepan over medium high. Add onions, paprika, and reserved coriander and cumin. Cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 6–8 minutes. Add remaining paste, tomatoes, garam masala, and cinnamon and cook another another 10 minutes. Stir in cream and yogurt, and chicken bring to a slight boil and reduce to a gentle simmer until thickened, about 8-10 minutes. Season with salt to your liking.

Serve with basmati rice and naan.

Pourboire: should a charcoal grill not be an option, simply broil, sauté or roast the chicken during that step and then continue with the remainder of the recipe.

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