This Chicken Curry Gives Black Pepper the Spotlight It Deserves
Let the underrated spice shine in an Indian-inspired stew that’s perfect for dinner tonight
When we’re developing recipes here at the SAVEUR test kitchen, freshly ground black pepper (along with kosher salt) is an absolute necessity for most savory and even some sweet dishes. And while it might seem superfluous to add “freshly ground” to every recipe, we can’t stress enough how important it is—while we fly through pre-ground cumin, cinnamon, and paprika, powdered pepper never crosses our threshold. We grind our peppercorns fresh. Every. Single. Time. It truly can make all the difference, so we thought we’d come up with a dish spotlighting the oft-overlooked spice. This easy chicken curry of course contains curry powder, but the main seasoning is black pepper—two whole teaspoons of it.
Black pepper, or Piper nigrum, most likely originated in Kerala, on India’s Malabar coast. Today, however, the majority of the world’s crop is harvested in Vietnam. Historically, ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all prized black pepper—the Egyptians included it in the mummification process, the Greeks treated it as currency, and the Romans used it extensively in the kitchen. The spice continued to increase in value throughout the Middle Ages and into the Enlightenment, peaking around the turn of the 17th century as European trade routes throughout India dispersed the taste for pepper throughout the New World.
Tellicherry peppercorns, the highest grade of Piper nigrum, are determined by size. Representing the top 10 percent of the crop, they’re the largest peppercorns available on the market and boast particularly complex flavors—most notably a pungent heat and bright citrus notes—that make the spice a fitting complement for so many savory applications.
When handled properly—toasted lightly to bring out the fragrant oils, then ground in a mortar and pestle or pepper mill immediately before using—the humble black peppercorn is every bit as worthy of headlining a dish as saffron, vanilla, or cardamom. So ditch the dusty pre-ground powder, pick up some peppercorns from your favorite spice shop, and get ready to give freshly ground black pepper the attention it deserves, starting with this simple skillet curry. A quick yogurt marinade tenderizes the chicken legs before cooking, while onion, garlic, curry powder—and black pepper in its star turn—add depth and a fiery kick. With a generous squeeze of lemon and plenty of fresh mint and cilantro swirled into the sauce at the end, it makes an delicious supper any night of the week. Here are my rules of thumb for making the most of black pepper—and getting this curry just right.
Pick Your Pepper
This dish is a good opportunity to experiment with different types of black pepper. The aforementioned Tellicherry is classic and would make a solid addition to your spice collection. Kampot pepper from Cambodia is equally versatile, but sweeter, with floral and grassy notes. Madagascar and Malaysian varietals have a deep, chocolatey flavor; long pepper is similar to Tellicherry, but with menthol-cardamom notes and a more pronounced, spicy heat.
Toast Your Peppercorns
Just like nuts, spices become more flavorful and fragrant when lightly toasted. To bring out the beauty of your peppercorns, first shake them in a fine-mesh sieve to remove any residual dust, then transfer to a dry skillet over medium heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the peppercorns are very fragrant and lightly toasted, then immediately transfer to a heat-resistant bowl. Let cool to room temperature before grinding.
Once ground, spices lose their fragrance rapidly. Grind only as much pepper as you plan to use within a week or two. A hand-crank burr spice grinder or classic pepper mill works well for small quantities; for larger volume, an electric spice grinder or even a blender will get the job done.
Marinate with Yogurt
A yogurt marinade is a common technique in South Asian cooking—the lactic acid in the tangy cultured dairy product breaks down protein, which tenderizes the meat while also allowing it to take on more moisture.
Legs for Days
We are firm believers in bone-in chicken legs for easy weeknight dinners. They are near impossible to overcook, and left to simmer for half an hour or so, the slender bones are a great source of sauce-thickening collagen. For this preparation, it is best to remove the skin before marinating, as it doesn’t get the opportunity to crisp or add anything to the finished dish.
Fry Your Aromatics in Ghee
The appeal of ghee (or clarified butter) in India is a pragmatic one. Ordinary butter is more prone to spoilage, but when the water and solids are removed, the clear, golden butterfat keeps for much longer at high temperatures. It is also an excellent fat for cooking, as it won’t burn or smoke like regular butter, and has a rich, nutty taste. Buy ghee jarred, or make your own. Here, it’s used to fry onions and garlic before the chicken is added.
Finish with Fresh Herbs
A generous handful of chopped mint and cilantro cuts the richness of the spicy curry sauce and adds a much-needed pop of color. Stir in the herbs just before serving to preserve their texture and bright-green hue.
Indian Green Curry Chicken with Black Pepper Recipe
- 2 tsp. whole black peppercorns
- ½ cup Greek yogurt
- 2 tsp. kosher salt, divided, plus more as needed
- 4 large chicken legs (2½ lb.), skin removed
- 2 Tbsp. clarified butter
- 2½ cups (12 oz.) finely chopped yellow onion
- 8 large garlic cloves, grated (2 Tbsp.)
- 3 green Thai chiles, halved (optional)
- 1 tsp. curry powder
- ¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh mint
- ¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
- Lemon wedges and steamed basmati rice, for serving
- In a small skillet over medium heat, add the peppercorns and cook, stirring and shaking frequently, until very fragrant and toasty, and slightly oily in appearance, 3–4 minutes. Transfer to a mortar and pestle or a pepper mill and let cool to room temperature, then coarsely grind.
- In a large bowl, whisk the yogurt with ¼ cup cold water. Add 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon of the ground pepper. Whisk well to combine, then add the chicken and toss gently to coat. Set aside to marinate at room temperature while you prepare the sauce.
- In a large, deep skillet over medium heat, melt the clarified butter. When the butter is hot, add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until just beginning to brown, 15–20 minutes. Add the garlic and chiles (if using) and cook 5 minutes more. Remove the chicken from the bowl, wiping away any marinade clinging to it, and add to the skillet. Season with salt, then add ¼ cup cold water, stirring gently to combine and to coat the chicken evenly. Bring to a simmer, then cover and regulate the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through, 30–35 minutes. Uncover, stir in the curry powder and remaining ground pepper, and continue cooking until the chicken is very tender and the sauce is thickened, 10–15 minutes more. Stir in the mint and cilantro, then transfer to a serving platter and serve, with lemon wedges and rice.