Chicken curry, island-style


About 60 years ago, on Little Corn Island, a tiny dot in the Caribbean Sea approximately 50 miles off the coast of Nicaragua, a cook named Maritza was born to a Colombian mother and Cuban father. She goes by “Bongui,” which means something in Creole, one of several languages spoken on the island. The gringos call her “Granny,” thanks to a sign on a table set up in her front veranda that reads Granny’s Creole Cooking School.

Her house is flanked by mango and coconut trees, several carefully placed hammocks and benches, and a fire pit out back under a tamarind tree. “Granny gwan make ya know fa cook island style,” she announced as we sipped tamarind-ade on her veranda.

We ate some epic meals at Granny’s, including Run Down, a seafood stew served with local starches like cassava, plantain and breadfruit. Our favorite was her chicken curry, and we returned for an encore presentation of that dish. To mix it up, she added some dumplings and used an “island chicken,” a locally sourced rooster from the island’s north end. As the chicken bubbled on the fire beneath the tamarind tree, its feet sticking out of the pot, Granny directed a kid named Pinky to crack and grate some dry coconuts.

This chicken curry is a great recipe for me to share with you because the ingredients are all available at home, so we can recreate it perfectly. The same can’t be said for Run Down or fried yellowtail.

Granny served the curry with coconut rice and deep-fried smashed plantains called tostones. We doused our food with habanero vinegar and chased it with sweet, cold tamarind beverages as Granny told us about a cooking contest going down the next day at the village wharf. All the best cooks on the island would be there, including Granny, the culinary Cardi B of Little Corn Island.

“Dem bitches all feared a me,” Granny announced with a grand sweep of her hand before pointing to herself. “Because dem know dis bitch can cook.”

She planned to enter her deep-fried yellowtail with seasoned coconut cream, not to be confused with coconut milk. She predicted the $100 prize would be as good as hers.

The next afternoon, Granny’s fried yellowtail sat on a plate on a card table, flanked by a green coconut and a bunch of flowers. The tables of her competitors were laid out like catered buffets, with main courses flanked by fish balls, conch fritters, bush salads and stewed green papaya.

Granny was furious. She didn’t know she was allowed to bring side dishes.

The winner was steamed yellowtail with Caribbean sauce. Second place was fried yellowtail in Caribbean sauce. Granny’s fried yellowtail in coconut cream did not make the podium.

Later that night, I ran into a fishing guide named Whiskers. Apologetically, I told him that I would not be fishing with him but with Granny’s husband, Tuba. Whiskers understood. “Bongui got set up, mon!” he said of Granny’s fate at the competition. “Dem make she tink twas but one dish wen dem knew der was plenty.”

The next night, I asked the winner, Michelle Gomez, if she would prepare her winning dish for us. It was delicious, but the earth didn’t tremble beneath my feet. I believe yellowtail, which is a tad bony, is better when fried crispy. And I love the interaction between a flavorful sauce and a crispy fish. So, the next night, we went to Granny’s and gave her entry a try. It was definitely better than the winning fish. But not as good as Granny’s chicken curry.

A few days later, I ended up taking an excursion with Whiskers. We went night snorkeling and saw octopi, rays, sea turtles and two lobsters having sex. While Granny may not have won that $100 prize, we took care of her. And she sent us home with dense bricks of cooked-down ginger, coconut and sugar. I’ve been putting pieces of it in the boys’ school lunches since we came home, a little edible reminder of Little Corn Island — as if they could ever forget.

Chef Boy Ari’s rendition of Granny’s chicken curry.
Chef Boy Ari’s rendition of Granny’s chicken curry.

Granny’s chicken curry

This dish will serve four to six people, depending on the size of the chicken. Serve with rice.

  • 1 whole chicken, cut up, or parts — I use a pack of drumsticks and a pack of thighs
  • 1 medium onion or shallot, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 hot pepper, sliced
  • 3 lemons or limes, juiced
  • 1 cubic inch of ginger, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon chicken bouillon
  • paste or powder
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 tablespoons curry powder
  • 1 can coconut milk (you can also make milk from two dry coconuts,  but it’s a process)
  • 1 bunch basil, chopped
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, mix the chicken pieces with the onion, garlic, hot pepper, lemon or lime juice, ginger slices and bouillon.

While that marinates, add the coconut oil to a stew pot and turn the heat to medium. Add the sugar and cook for about 10 minutes, until it’s completely blackened. Add the chicken to the burnt sugar and oil. Turn the heat to high and cook the chicken for about 30 minutes, turning occasionally. Add the onions and peppers from the marinade, along with the curry powder. Mix it all together and add the coconut milk. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for another 30 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste. Add the basil and cilantro and serve.



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