January 12 – Curried Chicken Day
I got really excited when I saw this day on the national food days’ calendar. Growing up in New York, curried chicken meant so many different things, from so many different worldwide cuisines. It meant the inexpensive chicken thigh stew my dad would make, or the breaded popcorn-like chicken nuggests my mom cooked. It was barbecues with friends and trips to the Junction. It was lunch at Curry Express during my first job in the city, working as a receptionist at a travel agency over a summer in college. It was the only meal with some taste I could find when studying in London. Curry means a lot of things to me, and from a lot of different backgrounds.
The name “curry” for a dish is a misnomer to begin with: curry is a blend of spices that differs with the culture’s cuisine, or even with the individual chef. It’s the reason why an Indian curry tastes different from a Jamaican curry, and why Westerners are perplexed when they see Thai curries come in green, red, and yellow. Nearly every culture in South Asia has their own brand of curried chicken, from Thailand and Indonesia to modern Japan, Afghanistan, and the myriad of cultures within the Indian subcontinent. When you say today is Curried Chicken Day, it can mean anything from a mild, fragrant stew to blazing-hot fried chicken pieces, and everything in between.
For this day I chose only three different cultures that utilize curry flavors in their dishes, three of my favorites–West Indian, Thai, and Indian. (I regret to say I haven’t tried Afghani food in my life, I may have to!) I may be a little biased, but I don’t believe you can get good, authentic West Indian curry in Manhattan. It’s got to come straight from the Caribbean neighborhoods themselves, in restaurants with no tablecloths or maitre’ds where there are just as many people waiting in line for takeout as there are sitting in the dining room. The Islands in Prospect Heights definitely fits that description, and they make a mean curry chicken. Reviewers call it fall-off-the-bone tender, and the bold flavors of the sauce (with just a touch of heat) are never wasted–they’re instantly absorbed by the bed of red beans and rice the dish is served upon. And considering the entree plate is only $10, you can try out their other delicacies, too–like their stewed oxtail and spicy jerk chicken.
803 Washington Ave (between Sterling Pl & St Johns Pl), Prospect Heights
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“What can I say — HMMM MMM!! The Spicy Curried Chicken was just devastatingly and devilishly scrumtioulicious!! The portly female chef was welcoming and calming. She came around the customer side of the counter to sit and talk. I felt like I went to look for my grandmother who would be cooking and everyone in awhile coming to check on me in the living room.”–Andrew M.
“Used to Caribbean portions, I noticed my meal had a little bit of extra poundage on it; a definite sign of quality rice. My arm almost got tired carrying it and I got a small!The rice was nicely balanced by the meat, and everything was lush and frag rent. I was skeptical but after I put the first bite into my mouth all I could do was dance..dance and moan in delight!! The heat in the curry was just right, the rice was lighter then I expected and the chicken fell off the bone fresh! Anyone can make chicken fall off the bone, but a place that can do that FRESH at $8 while keeping that level of spice and quality they have is rare!”–Elizabeth J.
For Thai curry, it behooves you to step away from the recent surge of trendy East Village restaurants and high-end Midtown cuisine and head to Woodside, Queens, where you’ll find SriPraPhai, a restaurant well off the beaten path. Different Thai curries are denoted by their color, which in turn decides their flavor and level of spice. Do not fall into the Western thinking of spiciness=a traffic light or you will be sorely disappointed in Green Means Go! :P The Penang chicken curry here is well celebrated, with a decent amount of spice. It’s touted as the “best Thai in Queens,” but we all know what happens when some restaurant is listed as definitively “the best”–someone’s always got to differ!
SriPraPhai Thai Restaurant
6413 39th Ave, Woodside
Some reviews from the web:
“You can have your curries, and I can promise that none of them will disappoint you, although all of them may surprise you, because they have nuances and a nimbleness often lacking in the curries at lesser Thai restaurants.”–Frank Bruni, The New York Times
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“The Penang red curry with chicken….!!!! Wow. Just Wow. A strong triple if not a homerun. I was surprised at how bursting with garlic it was. Wonderful texture of sauce, and the chicken breast was flavored and not dull and not rubbery- what a concept!!! The flavor just kept on going and going. Rich and intense.”–Junah C.
“Red Curry with chicken, bamboo shoot and coconut milk on the Ala Carte section ($9) Extremely good. This was suggested by the waitress and it did not disappoint. I generally don’t go for chicken dishes but on her word, I got the chicken and didn’t regret it one bit. It was spicy but not overly so(if you’re really sensitive to spice, maybe avoid, but give it a try if you can take any).”–Alex H.
Finally we come to the curry that many people first think of when they hear the word: Indian curries are also stew-like, but they tend to run on the hottest side among these three cuisines. (Perhaps this is why more Westerners trend towards the milder Thai restaurants–all the exoticism with none of the afterburn!) And I couldn’t make a post all about curries without mentioning a restaurant from Curry Hill itself. Although there are a ton of curry pitfalls in the area–for the love of all that is holy in your world, don’t eat at Curry In A Hurry, no matter how clever you think it is–Tamarind is one of the sure-fire good bets on this street. The restaurant is one of the higher priced ones in the neighborhood–especially when lots of people are used to cheap curries from hole-in-the-wall over the counter Indian places–but their ingredients are fresh and top-notch, and their food is certainly worth the price. If you want to celebrate this national food day in style, your best bet is to go all-out on a guaranteed great restaurant, instead of trying your luck at another curry joint.
41-43 E 22nd St
Now, of course I’ve left out some amazing curry restaurants, from varied cuisines all around the world, but if I mentioned every great curry joint in New York City this post would be way too long! Let me know what your favorite place is in the city to get curried chicken–be it Thai, Indian, Caribbean, or maybe hailing from somewhere else! The comments are always open :)