India is one of the most complex places I’ve ever been. The country is shaped by many contrasting cultural forces which I couldn’t imagine coexisting together. But paradoxically, they manage to work together to make a complex cultural harmony. I would spend one day wandering around my friend’s house, next door to the Prime Minister’s. Servants would follow me around as I roamed from one lavish room to another. The next day I would step out on the street and beggars with empty hands and sad faces would follow me instead. Much like that contrasting “rich” and “poor”, the Taj Mahal seemed to me an almost permanent symbol of the eternal love of an emperor for his wife, while everything else in Varanasi seemed transient. Along the Ganges River, women dressed in saris and men dressed in dhotis/kurtas were busy washing their sins away. The ashes from dead bodies were being immersed into the river. Hindus believed that cleansing their karma and having their dead bodies immersed into the holy Ganges River will stop the endless cycle of reincarnation. India, one of the most diverse countries in the world, presents many layers of complexity to curious outsiders.
Like its complex culture, Indian cuisine varies greatly from region to region. Among all the diverse ingredients in its cuisine, I think saffron, a red spice derived from the Saffron Crocus flower, most captures the depth of its cultural enigma. It has such contrasting flavors – bitter, yet sweet, dry hay-like, yet lively. It adds interesting aromas and flavors, while turning foods a bright yellowish orange color. Playing with this magical multi-dimensional ingredient in my kitchen, I’m making Indian saffron chicken today.
First, I skin 3.5 lb whole chicken and break them apart into thighs, wings and quartered breasts. Then I marinade the chicken pieces with 3 cloves garlic (crushed), 2 teaspoons sea salt, 1 ½ teaspoon ginger (crushed) and 1 teaspoon ground cardamom for 30 minutes at room temperature. Subsequently, I heat 3 Tablespoons ghee (pure butter fat) and sauté 1 onion (chopped) and 3 fresh red jalapeño chili (sliced) with ½ teaspoon saffron strands (pounded & dissolved in a Tablespoon of hot water) and a pinch of sea salt. Then, I add the marinated chicken pieces to the pot, coat them with the saffron mixture and cook until tender. Finally, I serve the flavorful saffron chicken with some flat bread (naan).
I am pairing this Indian chicken with a 2009 Evergreen Vineyards “Spruce Goose” Riesling from McMinnville, Oregon. Crisp and clean, this citrus-y dry white wine counterbalances the rich “melt-in-your-mouth” buttery flavor of the chicken coated with ghee. The sweet aromas of honeysuckle and stone fruits of the wine also complements the sweet and spicy aromatics of the saffron-chili-cardamom mixture. Not only does this wine go so well with the Indian saffron chicken, but it also makes this complex dish feel friendlier in the mouth. What a wonderful pairing it is.
Hope you enjoy the discovery of the Indian taste and a great wine pairing tip. Happy cooking!