Growing up, Sunday night dinner was a ritual event that took place without fail. My Father would come home early from work on Sundays and him and my Mother would start in the kitchen, chopping away at kilos and kilos of tomatoes, mincing away at bulbs of garlic and huge chunks of ginger. You’d walk in and be taken back by the crisp, fragrant aroma of pure freshness and also by the sheer quantity of ingredients.
Sunday night was always Karahi night.
And my Father was the Karahi Master.
Every Sunday, my Father would cook a huge Karahi for our entire extended family. We’d all gather together, chatting and gnawing away at the Karahi collectively, alongside platefuls of salad, fresh roti and lots of Coca Cola.
I use the past tense when talking about this because this ritual sadly no longer occurs. Work commitments have changed, people have moved, routines have become less predictable. But the era of the Sunday Night Karahi is definitely a time I will forever look back at fondly.
Will The Real Chicken Karahi Please Stand Up?
I’m going to get straight to the chase here, no bending around the bush. I’m really fed up of red chicken curries pretending to be Chicken Karahis.
When I was a 17 year old, my Mother tasked me with cooking a Chicken Karahi for dinner as she went out for the day. I was the Karahi Master’s daughter, surely I’d have learnt some things about making a decent Karahi you’d think? Alas, I didnt. So maybe this frustration I have with fake Chicken Karahis stem from the fact that when I Googled ‘Chicken Karahi recipe’, I hit a recipe that wanted me to add large prominent chunks of onion in a watery chicken soup and simmer it on low for 40 minutes. Blindly, I followed that recipe and my Father came home only to be absolutely mortified by my red chicken shorba.
Whatever the reason, Karahis definitely hit a sentimental spot with me because of how much of a big celebration they were for my family.
In life, I generally have a very low tolerance to negative things. I also have a very low tolerance for sub-parr Karahis, or curries claiming to be Karahis but then containing lots of onion, tinned tomatoes and a light hand on the ginger and garlic. Sorry. I’m a Karahi purist #sorrynotsorry.
So What IS a Chicken Karahi?
In the context of the curry, a Chicken Karahi is a tomato and ginger based, thick masala curry which is though to originate from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. The original, authentic method of making it is a very specific one. As a general rule, Karahis are made from a base of ginger, garlic and tomatoes and also contain fresh green chillis, julienne-cut raw ginger and coriander. It’s a rather thick, jammy gravy and concentrated in flavour – yum!
The traditional Karahi has undergone pretty major alterations over time. In order to bulk up the masala gravy and also cut the cost, onions have been added in so frequently in restaurants that many people know don’t even know the real recipe doesn’t contain onion. I’ve also seen variations use large chunks of red onion and capsicum much like a Chicken Jalfrezi. Modern day conveniences such as tinned tomatoes and pre-packaged jars of ginger and garlic are also pretty normal too.
The recipe and instructions I’m sharing with you today is for the REAL DEAL Chicken Karahi. No bulking up with onions, everything is fresh, crisp and simple. It’s as close to the real deal as you can get, really. I want to break down EVERYTHING to you before proceeding on to the recipe, because if you can’t already tell, I am absolutely INSANE about getting Karahis right!
The Main Components of a Karahi
Just to lay thiis straight before we proceed with more information, this is what a Karahi consists of
- Your Meat – This could be lamb, mutton, beef, fish etc. For this we’re using chicken obviously. In terms of what kind of chicken to get, any bone-in medium chicken will suffice. In this recipe, I’ve used a rather small chicken which was only 550g in total weight. If your chicken weighs more, please do make adjustments for the quantities of tomatoes, spices and oil
- Fresh Ginger – this is a very defining component of any Karahi. We use ginger in both the curry gravy as well as in the garnish in its raw form. Ginger is a very prominent flavour of a Karahi, so this is definitely not something to skimp on! Use a heavy hand with this!
- Fresh Garlic – another important component of the Karahi, however its flavour definitely does take a backseat in comparison to its aforementioned brother, ginger. Use a heavy hand with this too! We use quite a lot of garlic in Karahis to help bulk up the masala too, since there aren’t any onions in here.
- Fresh Tomatoes – A Karahi is a tomato based curry. The original, traditional recipe does not contain onions. I will repeat this again (and again and again) – onions have been added into mainstream Karahis for the sole reason that it bulks up the masala on the cheap. My recipe doesn’t use onions because quite frankly I’m a Karahi purist and if it contains onions, it ain’t a Karahi to me!
- Fresh Green Chilli + Coriander – adds another fresh flavour element to the Karahi playing into the natural, crisp flavours of Karahis and also adds a wonderful fragrance.
- Spices – The spices in a Karahi are rather simple. This allows the natural flavours of the tomatoes, ginger, garlic etc all to shine!
How to Make Chicken Karahi
The following is a basic outline of what we do to make a REAL, authentic Chicken Karahi. Don’t worry, there’s more detailed instructions, pictures and exact quantities at the end!
- We start by frying the chicken in a generous amount of oil. We can’t really get away from the oil here, soz.
- We than add in a LOT of minced ginger and garlic. Please none of that pre-made, jarred stuff. FRESH ginger and garlic is KEY here. Remember I said Karahis have a huge emphasis on fragrance and natural flavours? These two ingredients are a MAJOR component of that. We want to fry these just enough for the raw smell to go away – under no circumstances should you allow this to burn because it will taint the flavour of the Karahi.
- We then go ahead and add all our tomatoes and spices. The tomatoes will release TONS of moisture and will break down into a beautifully jammy, thick gravy that will coat the chicken.
- We allow this mix to cook on high, stirring as needed to make sure it doesn’t catch at the bottom of the pan. We don’t put the lid on because we are concentrating the flavour. If we put the lid on, we won’t get that true Karahi look or flavour because we will be containing the moisture in our pan, not allowing the flavours to concentrate. The result will be a boiled/steamed chicken that looks more like a red chicken shorba and will likely break/flake. Not ideal for a Karahi!
- At about the 15-20 minute mark, the gravy will have thickened nicely, the oil will be separating around the edges, the chicken will be cooked and things will be looking almost done. At this point, you can add the chopped coriander and chillis, turn the heat to low and allow everything to simmer together again without the lid. It can simmer for 5 minutes at this point
- It’s all ready! Now you can garnish with your slices of ginger and serve as you please
Top Tips To Keep In Mind
- I use fresh tomatoes, the kind that are super firm and make a delicious sound when you slice through them *drools*. My Father prefers these too. Having said that, I’ve used cherry tomatoes too and they also taste GREAT!
- Please make sure you use the correct chicken to tomato ratio. Go according to weight, as opposed to number of tomatoes.
- Cooking a Chicken Karahi with the lid on is a gunaah e kabeera (major sin). Sorry. Its true. The only time you’re allowed to cook a Karahi with the lid on is if you’re cooking a red meat Karahi (I will do a post on this next month) OR if for some reason the chicken hasn’t cooked through. Fun fact: the first time I cooked a Karahi by myself I simmered it on low with a lid and my Father’s reaction was to almost disown me. Good times.
- Also, a Chicken Karahi does not need any water. Do not add water, even if it’s against your own judgement! Please trust the chicken and tomatoes, they WILL release lots of their own beautifully delicious juices. I would like to call this a gunaah e kabeera too and only allowed for red meat Karahis!
- In terms of green chillis, my preference is the short, fat ‘bullet chilli’ variety over the slim and long ‘birds eye chillis’. The reason for this is the biggest function of the chilli is moreso for fragrance and less for heat. Therefore, a milder chilli is preferable.
- You really do need to keep a heavy hand on the ginger and garlic. I could easily x1.5 the quantities of ginger and garlic used in this recipe for a stronger flavour and more delicious bulk
- Due to the lack of onions in the curry, a Karahi pairs really well with a salad made with raw onions, salt/vinegar optional!
- The ultimate fat to use for this is ghee. Ghee adds a rustic flavour that pairs incredibly well with all the elements of the Karahi. Any neutral oil is fine too. I would believe butter would work fine too but I personally haven’t ever used it.
- The paprika/Kasmiri red chilli only functions to add colour. I highly recommend you use this. Should you not have this to hand, I would recommend you use a small amount of red chilli powder for colour.
- Treat the Karahi like a stir-fry. It’s a very busy, active, happening dish. You will be stirring a lot, constantly doing something, adding in things at various points. My Father always has everything chopped and ready before he started cooking his Karahis, therefore I do the same too and definitely recommends you do so too.
- Finely chopping the tomatoes is important because it helps the tomatoes break down quickly and on the same timescale as the chicken. It also ensures you don’t have huge chunks of tomato skin in your curry
On to the recipe! If you recreate this recipe I’d love to see! Please tag me in your pictures on Instagram – I’m @fatima.cooks!
Enjoy, with love x
- 1/2 cup oil or ghee
- 550g chicken, bone in and cut into curry pieces
- 600g tomatoes, finely chopped
- 1 bulb garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp ginger, minced
- 2 tsp salt, or to taste
- 2 tsp paprika/kashmiri red chilli
- 1.5 tsp crushed black pepper
- 1 tsp chilli flakes
- 0.5 tsp cumin powder
- 0.5 tsp coriander powder
- 1tsp kalonji (black seed, optional)
- 2 green chillis, slit in half lengthwise
- 0.5 bunch coriander, chopped
- 1/4 cup ginger cut into matchstick pieces
- Heat up your oil in a karahi dish, wok, cast iron skillet or any pan suitable for stirfrying, keeping the flame on high for the entire duration
- Add the chicken in. Fry this, stirring constantly until the chicken begins to take on a golden colour in some places
- Add in the minced ginger and garlic. Give this a fry alongside the chicken, again stirring constantly and ensuring nothing burns. Continue to fry this until the raw smell of the ginger and garlic begins to fade
- Add all the chopped tomatoes and spices. Stir in and allow this all to cook on high, stirring to ensure nothing catches at the bottom of the pan
- Continue to cook this mix for about 20 minutes. The oil will separate, the tomatoes will thicken and begin to coat the chicken, and you will see holes begin to bubble in the gravy. The chicken should be cooked through at this point
- Add the coriander and green chillis, stir in, turn the heat down to a low flame and allow everything to simmer together for 5 minutes without putting the lid on
- Serve with the matchstick-cut ginger and additional coriander/green chilli if desired
If your chicken hasn't cooked through, you can put the lid on and simmer everything on low for a few additional minutes. Avoid adding water unless absolutely necessary.
If you don't intend to serve this immediate, stop after step 5. Proceed with step 6 when you are almost about to serve.
1/2-1 tsp garam masala powder can also be added alongside the coriander optionally. I'd recommend making the garam masala fresh at home for optimal flavour and fragrance.
If for some reason you have to or want to use onions, I would recommend you add 1 large onion very finely chopped into the oil before the chicken and allow this to cook until lightly golden before adding the chicken.