Traditional dishes don’t become iconic by accident. Classic recipes become part of a culture by getting passed down through the years and around the world — a phenomenon that you’ll be grateful for if you’ve never tried the rich, spicy bite of nati koli saaru. In this version, chef and founder of Podi House, Deepa Shridhar, makes this South Indian marinated chicken dish ultra savoury with a bath of coconut milk, a mix of toasted spices and jaggery — a variety of caramelized cane sugar that can be found in your local Indian grocery store.
“There are many versions of nati koli saaru, some written, most verbally communicated from one generation to the next,” says Deepa. “It’s classically a South Indian/Kannadiga dish, spicy and rich with chunks of chicken meat. This recipe is based on a version I enjoyed in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) and brings to it techniques I use in my own supper clubs and pop-ups. Here I take the flavours to a whole roasted butterflied chicken. I call for crushed tomatoes, but I also love using fermented tomatoes instead for depth and tang. This is a great dish to pair with rice, or dosa, and perfect for a dinner party.”
Roasted Nati Koli Saaru
Active Time: 2 hours
Total Time: 14 hours (includes marinating time)
Chicken and Marinade
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 ½ tsp black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
1 cup shredded coconut
One 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
5 to 7 cloves garlic, depending on size, peeled
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp jaggery
2 Tbsp coarse sea salt crystals
1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
4 to 5 jalapenos
Juice of 1 small lime
One 4-to-5-lb chicken, butterflied (see Cook’s Note)
¼ cup neutral oil (sunflower or grapeseed work great)
1 yellow or white onion, sliced
2 sprigs curry leaves
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
1 Tbsp Kashmiri red chili powder
2 tsp turmeric powder
One 13 1/2-ounce can coconut milk
Cilantro, for garnish
Cooked jasmine rice, for serving
Lime wedges, for serving
1. For the chicken and the marinade: Place a medium cast-iron skillet over high heat. Add the sesame oil. Add the fenugreek, cumin, black peppercorns and cloves and toast for about 30 seconds. Turn off the heat and let the mixture sit in the hot skillet for another 30 seconds, and then transfer to a mini food processor. Return the skillet to medium-low heat and add the shredded coconut to the skillet. Stir until toasted, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to the mini food processor. Add the ginger, garlic, cinnamon, jaggery, salt and cilantro to the processor.
2. Place the same skillet the spices cooked in over medium-heat heat (no need to add any more oil). Add the jalapenos and cook until blistered and charred. Plunge the jalapenos into a bowl of cold water. Peel the jalapenos and discard the stems. Add to the processor with the spices. Add the lime juice and process until the mixture forms a thick paste, adding a little water if necessary to get a smooth texture.
3. Place the chicken in a baking dish or other container large enough so the chicken will lay flat. Rub the bird all over with the marinade, cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours or overnight.
4. When it is about 2 to 3 hours before serving, make the sauce: Place a large cast-iron pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the oil and onion. Move the onions to one side and add the butterflied chicken, skin-side down. Add the curry leaves when the onions start to sizzle. Once you have a good sear on your chicken, carefully flip it over. Add the tomatoes, chili powder, turmeric, coconut milk and 1 1/2 cups water and stir together. Lower the heat and simmer the sauce for 15 minutes.
5. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Pop the dish into the oven. Check every 20 minutes; you are looking for the chicken to start to break down, the sauce to thicken and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh not touching bone to register 165ºF.
6. Taste the sauce and add salt if needed. Finish with the juice of half a lime. Garnish with more cilantro and serve with rice and limes wedges on the side.
Cook’s Note: Butterflying, also called spatchcocking, involves removing the backbone of a chicken so that it lays flat. A butcher can do this for you, or you can do it yourself: Using kitchen shears or a heavy knife, cut down around either side of the backbone and lift it out. Turn the chicken breast-side up and press down very firmly on the breast with both palms until you hear a crack and the chicken flattens.
Want to add more Indian flavours to your dinner table? These easy Indian recipes are better than takeout.