Eating Jewish: Chittarnee (Sweet and Sour Chicken in Onion Sauce)

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Chittarnee (Sweet and Sour Chicken in Onion Sauce)
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Photo courtesy of Katherine Romanow.

I want to start off by saying that this may not be the prettiest dish to look at, but trust me, it is very tasty. I will admit that I was doubtful about how this dish would taste while it was being prepared. It looked more like an unappetizing mix of chicken and tomatoes to me than a delicious Indian chicken dish, and not something I wanted to be eating for dinner that night. I almost gave up on the whole thing and decided that I wouldn’t be writing about this dish for Eating Jewish, when my friend insisted otherwise and added the remaining ingredients that brought the dish together. So luckily for you and I, someone was there to persuade me to go through with the recipe, because we both would have missed out on this delicious dish.

This is another dish that has its origins in the Indian Jewish community and in particular the Baghdadi Indian community. (See last week's Eating Jewish: Kheer, Indian rice pudding.)  This segment of the Jewish community in India, who lived mainly in the cities of Bombay and Calcutta, were the last to become part of the Indian community and were also the most affluent. For the most part, this group consisted of Jews of Middle Eastern origin, a majority of which descended from Jews from Iraq, which in turn was the reason they became known as Baghdadis. Jews from Syria, Yemen and Iran also joined this community. However, the community has since become so small that it has almost disappeared. At their height, this community did not become Indianized and held on to aspects of the culture they brought with them from their homelands. One such thing was their foodways and style of cooking, which led to the fact that the cooking of the Baghdadi Jews became a hybrid cuisine. Thus, Indian flavors were added to both Iraqi and Syrian dishes. In this dish, the sweet and sour flavors typical of Iraqi and Syrian cuisine were combined with spices used in Indian cooking. Chittarnee was often made with meat rather than chicken in Bombay, while the Baghdadi community in Calcutta more frequently made it with chicken because of the fact that they did not have a permanent shohet. Therefore, they only ate meat when a ritual slaughterer came into the city from Bombay in order to slaughter meat for festivals.

Chittarnee is a succulent dish that is the perfect combination of spices, such as ginger, turmeric and coriander, often found in Indian cooking and the tanginess of vinegar. It is precisely the addition of the sugar and the red wine vinegar that, in my opinion, make this dish shine. With their addition the flavors are immediately brightened and the various ingredients are brought together in a way that will delight your taste buds, making it hard not to want a second helping of it. As noted in the recipe below, I used a 28 ounce can of chopped tomatoes instead of a 14 ounce can, which made for a dish with more sauce than what the original recipe would have produced. Yet this change made it the perfect thing to eat over some freshly cooked rice for a lovely dinner.

I hope that these last two recipes have whetted your appetite and your curiosity to explore more of the cuisine of the fascinating Indian Jewish community.

Chittarnee (Sweet-and-Sour Chicken in Onion Sauce)
Adapted from Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food

3-4 large onions, finely chopped
4 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
2 or 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped or crushed in a press
1 ½ teaspoons grated ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoon coriander
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
A pinch of red chili flakes (or more, depending if you would like more heat)
2 bay leaves
8 boneless and skinless chicken fillets (breasts and/or thighs), cut into smaller pieces
Salt, to taste
14 ounce can of chopped tomatoes (I used a 28 ounce can and it was still delicious, just slightly more saucy than the original recipe would have been)
2-3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar

  1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and cook the onions, uncovered, on medium heat while stirring occasionally until they are soft and golden. Add the garlic, ginger, spices, and bay leaves and cook for 5 minutes.

  2. Add the chicken pieces and sauté for about 10 minutes until they’re cooked through.

  3. Add the tomatoes and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes, until the excess liquid has reduced. Season with salt.

  4. Stir in the vinegar and the sugar, and cook for 10 minutes more. Serve with rice.

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