There are days when my husband and I are incredibly homesick for chicken karahi. When we lived in San Francisco we would order it every other week from Shalimar, a restaurant in the Tenderloin. Shalimar is one of those old-school, no-frills South Asian joints that is iconic because the food is so damn good and plentiful; its chicken karahi is no exception. The dish, which is made most popularly in India and Pakistan, is deeply comforting. Made of quickly braised chicken, fresh tomatoes, ginger, red chiles, turmeric, and garlic, it’s cooked in a karahi (sometimes spelled “kadai” or “korai”), a heavy, wide-mouthed pan that that resembles a wok.
As much as we loved Shalimar’s chicken karahi (and its gosht karahi, made with goat) it was not the only game in town, or even the Tenderloin: There was also the version at Lahore Karahi, a restaurant owned by my husband’s adopted Pakistani “uncle” Guddu. Guddu’s chicken karahi and tandoori items were all outstanding, the stuff that homesick memories are made of. Sadly, Guddu retired and we moved to the South before he could teach me all of his secrets, but my husband still uses Guddu’s stellar cooking as a standard of excellence.
Someday I’ll get to Guddu’s level, but for now I’m happy to keep trying. I’ve put chicken karahi on the menu at our New Orleans restaurant, Mister Mao, and it’s on rotation in our home kitchen, too. When I cook it at home I add a wallop of extra chiles — more than the recipe calls for — and some butter at the end for extra richness. My husband and I like to live dangerously through spicy foods, and it also makes us feel warm and fuzzy to cook something in honor of Guddu and our memories of our West Coast home.
Chicken karahi is an excellent dish to eat anytime, but especially on Thanksgiving: It requires minimal prep, cooks quickly, and rewards you with deep, delicious flavors. Served with a side of rice or flatbread to sop up the gravy, it’s also perfect for a crowd.
Chicken Karahi Recipe
3 tablespoons rice bran or grape-seed oil, or any vegetable oil with a high smoke point
2 pounds boneless and skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces
2 large yellow onions, cut in half and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon good-quality turmeric, such as Diaspora Co.’s Pragati turmeric
1 tablespoon Kashmiri chile powder (you can also substitute paprika)
2 teaspoons garam masala (optional)
¼ cup to 1 cup fresh ginger (depending on preference), thinly sliced
2 serrano chiles, thinly sliced (about ¼ cup)
6 peeled Roma tomatoes, cut into small dice (you can use canned diced tomatoes in a pinch)
Pinch of sugar
3 tablespoons butter (optional)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (optional, but useful if the tomatoes don’t have enough acid)
1 cup cilantro with stems, chopped
Cooked rice, for serving
Any kind of flatbread, such as naan or chapati, for serving
Step 1: Heat the oil in a large saute or saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and saute for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Add the salt, cumin seeds, turmeric, chile powder, garam masala, ginger, and chiles. Continue to saute for another 5 minutes.
Step 2: Add the tomatoes and sugar and simmer, covered, over medium-low heat until the tomatoes break down into a thick gravy and the chicken is very tender, about 20 minutes. If the tomatoes are dry and start to stick to the bottom of the pan while cooking, add a splash or two of water and stir frequently.
Step 3: Add the butter and lemon juice. Taste for salt. If the gravy is too thick, stir a splash of water into it.
Step 4: To serve, garnish with a ton of cilantro and serve with rice and flatbread.
Sophina Uong is the chef and co-owner of Mister Mao.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Ivy Manning