A Shabbat Curry by Way of Mumbai
Recipe Roots: Mumbai, India > Ashdod, Israel > Washington D.C.
Shared by Shulie Madnick
Shabbat dinners in Shulie Madnick’s childhood home in the Israeli coastal city of Ashdod varied only slightly from week to week. There was always challah and Israeli salads, often onion bajji or fritters and puri, a spherical fried bread from India, and rice. The accompaniments, however, were secondary to a centerpiece of chicken curry, made with her family’s custom heady spice blend.
A chicken (or sometimes beef) curry features on the table of many Jewish families, like hers, with roots in Mumbai, a community called Bene Israel, Shulie explains. “There will be certain variations because of the hand [making it] or the spice mixture, but they will be very distinctly similar in flavor.” When we asked her who was the first person in her family to make chicken curry for Shabbat, she explained that it has been made for “thousands of years, so I can not trace it.”
It was her grandmother, though, who brought the recipe to Israel when she immigrated in the early 1960s. The Jewish community in India didn’t face persecution, Shulie explains. But, “I think my grandmother wanted a different life…. [she] wanted to change the narrative of her own life. She was the driving force behind the move. She was an empowered, strong woman. ” So, when Jewish Agency officials came to encourage aliyah, the family signed up. While their lives shifted, the family’s cooking remained deeply rooted in the Indian kitchen.
Shulie was raised on Shabbat curry, along with puri, bajji, and chapati, a flatbread her family gathered in the kitchen to make together in an assembly line. “My mom would make fresh food everyday. There were no leftovers,” Shulie explains. “I think the cooking made life richer for us — even though growing up we were not rich,” she adds.
On Fridays, Shulie would tag along with her mom when she went to the city’s shuk, or market, to buy chicken and a batch of freshly-ground masala for the Shabbat curry. That required a trip to a spice shop owned by her aunt and uncle. The two carefully blended precise proportions of dried red chiles, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, cardamom, cumin, and coriander seeds to make their signature masala. Decades later, the ratios remain a closely guarded family secret.
Despite her mother’s daily cooking and trips to the shuk, Shulie had no interest in cooking as a child. “When I got married, when I was 21, I barely knew how to boil eggs,” she says.
Only when she moved to Washington D.C. a few years later, did she start to cook, calling her mother for the family recipes, including the Shabbat curry. As she started to spend more time in the kitchen, Shulie, who is now a professional food writer and photographer, realized that “somehow, along the way, it became a part of me,” she says. It wasn’t just the recipes that she had absorbed as a child. During the afternoons she spent in the kitchen, helping as part of the family assembly line, “I was getting the feel and the rhythm.”
Today, she’s working to imbue her son Sagie, who lives in Israel, with her mother’s kitchen rhythm and the family’s recipes. The two cook together when Shulie visits him in Israel, whether it’s in an AirBnB kitchen or on a Kibbutz where he spent his weekends when he served in the army. The rest of the time, the cooking sessions take place over video calls that connect their two kitchens.
So far, Sagie hasn’t learned to make the Shabbat curry, but when he does, it will certainly be with the family blend.
Shulie Madnick's Chicken Curry
Shulie’s family masala blend is a closely guarded family secret, that Shulie and the broader family continue to watch over. To make her family Shabbat curry recipe, she recommends looking for Maharashtrian or Bombay curry blends, which are similar in style to her family’s.
Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes
4-6 tablespoons canola oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, peeled
2 green chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, sliced in half
1 small bunch cilantro, rough stems removed, roughly chopped
1 large tomato, grated
1 tablespoon Maharashtrian or Bombay curry powder*
1 teaspoon salt
1 whole chicken, skinned, cut into 8 pieces
4-6 medium potatoes, peeled, cut into 6ths
Water to cover
*Can be found at a specialty food store like Kalustyan’s or Patel Brother’s or online.
1. Heat the oil in a large stock pot over medium-low heat. Add the onions and stir. Cover and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onions begin to brown, about 20 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to sauté, until onions caramelize and turn a deep golden color, about 20 more minutes.
2. While the onions are caramelizing, place the garlic, chili peppers, and cilantro into the bowl of a food processor and pulse, scraping down the sides of the processor once or twice, to form a fine paste.
3. Once the onions have caramelized, add the chili pepper mixture to the pot and stir to combine. Cover and cook on medium-low heat for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Add the grated tomato and stir to combine. Cover and cook for 5 minutes longer.
5. Add the curry powder and salt and stir for 1-2 minutes until the dry and wet mixtures (masalas) incorporate evenly.
6. Add the chicken and potatoes to the pot. Cover with water up to an inch above the chicken and potatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, mix and cover. Simmer for 1 hour to 1 hour and 20 minutes covered, until the chicken is falling off the bone. Do not mix while cooking. You can shake the pot gently and carefully while holding the handle 2-4 times during the cooking process to make sure the chicken and potatoes aren’t getting stuck to the bottom and burning. Adjust heat to a lower setting if necessary.
7. Serve hot over basmati rice.