The best grilled chicken I’ve ever tasted comes from a restaurant in New Delhi called Karim. The trip there takes you through a National Geographic-esque warren of narrow lanes teaming with white-robed men and inscrutably veiled women, past beggars and street merchants, wandering cows and aromas that might charitably be described as nose-tweaking.
The streets are too narrow to be navigated by taxi, but a squadron of Punjabi doormen in red livery posted every 30 yards will guide you. The short walk brings you to the last place you’d expect to find in these colorful surroundings: a proper restaurant with glacial air conditioning, wood paneling, coffered ceilings and nattily set tables with tablecloths.
Karim was founded by one Hazi Amliudine Ahmed (Karim was his nickname), scion of a long line of royal chefs, and chef himself to one of the region’s last kings, Bahadur Sheik Zafar.
The original Karim still stands in a courtyard in the heart of Old Delhi. Over the years, it has spread to the ground floor of several neighboring buildings, offering a half-dozen dining rooms, including one where men can dine with their families. (We’re in Muslim territory now, so it’s rare to see women in restaurants.)
Karim’s 27-year-old great-grandson, Mohammed Fazil, runs the restaurant these days, serving 1,000 to 1,200 people daily. He’s the guy sitting barefoot and cross-legged, dressed in white tunic and skullcap, tending a bank of pots bubbling away over charcoal on a dais in the dining room.
In 1970, the family opened a second restaurant in the slightly more upscale Muslim neighborhood of Nizamuddin. Equipped with a larger kitchen and fancier dining room, the Nizamuddin Karim offers a full range of grilled dishes, including tandoori bakra - a whole goat stuffed with dried fruits, hard-cooked eggs and a basmati rice casserole called biryani.
In short order, I dispatched tandoori barra (lamb ribs), seekh kebab (ground lamb on a skewer), and an astonishing variety of grilled breads. But the dish I still dream about is Karim’s Afghani murgh, or Afghani-style chicken.
To try to get the recipe, I asked for a tour of the kitchen. The good news is that the food preparation area is as immaculate as the dining room. (This isn’t always the case in India; then again, it isn’t always the case in the United States.) The cooks wear gray jumpsuits, which make them look a little like convicts. Two sit barefoot and crosslegged before a pair of giant tandoors (urn-shaped clay ovens), where the meats and breads are roasted over charcoal. Marinades are mixed in flat metal pans directly on the floor, which was clean enough to eat off of.
The bad news is that the family keeps tight wraps on its recipes - to the point where the spice blends used to flavor the marinades are mixed at the owner’s home, so not even the chef knows the full recipe.
The marinade is based on what Indians call “hung yogurt,” whole-milk yogurt that is tied in cheesecloth and suspended over a bowl to allow the whey to drain off. (Americans call this preparation yogurt cheese.) The yogurt imparts a tangy flavor and has a tenderizing effect on the chicken.
The only remotely tricky part about preparing this recipe is locating whole-milk yogurt (no small challenge in health-conscious North America) and remembering to drain it ahead of time.
As for the other seasonings, I was able to detect the presence of garlic and ginger, cumin and cayenne, and a generous fillip of lemon juice.
Here, then, is my re-creation of Karim’s Afghan Chicken. I hope it lives up to the restaurant’s slogan: “The secret of a good mood … Taste Karim’s food!”
At Karim’s, this dish is made with chicken legs, which are considered richer and tastier than the breast. If you prefer white meat, use 4 split bone-in breasts, or even a whole chicken cut into quarters.
1 quart plain whole-milk yogurt
4 whole chicken legs (thighs and drumsticks), about 2 pounds, skinned
8 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger root
1/2 onion, chopped
1 to 3 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds
1 teaspoon sweet or hot paprika
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Sliced red onion
Drain yogurt in yogurt strainer at least 4 hours or as long as overnight. You should have about 2 cups “hung yogurt” (yogurt cheese).
Wash and dry chicken and make 2 or 3 deep slashes to bone in each piece. Set aside.
To prepare marinade, pound garlic, ginger root, onion, cayenne, salt, coriander, pepper, cumin and paprika to a smooth paste in a mortar and pestle, or puree in blender or spice mill. (If pureeing in blender, you’ll need to add the lemon juice and few tablespoons yogurt cheese.)
Combine puree with yogurt cheese and lemon juice in nonreactive mixing bowl and whisk until smooth. Add chicken and coat with mixture. Cover and marinate 4 to 8 hours in refrigerator.
Preheat grill to medium-high. (For best results, work over charcoal.) Grill chicken legs until nicely browned on outside and cooked through, 6 to 9 minutes per side or as needed. There should be no traces of pink at bone.
Transfer chicken to plates or platter. Garnish with sliced onion, tomatoes, cucumber, radishes and lemon wedges.
Yield: 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 380 calories, 14.3 grams fat (34 percent fat calories), 43 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrate, 161 milligrams cholesterol, 1,121 milligrams sodium.
Steven Raichlen is the author of “High-Flavor, Low-Fat Vegetarian Cooking” (Viking.)