Stewing in the magic of ishtu

Happy 60th Dad!

Today is dad’s birthday. Wish as I might, I can’t be there with the folks. So I did the second best thing I could do. Cook a couple of his favourite dishes.

So in his honour I made chicken stew (as we don’t get the right kind of mutton here) and palak (spinach). Only this time I made the latter the way it is made in God’s own country and not the Punjabi way mom does back in Delhi.

I visited Kerala recently to visit amma (my mom-in-law) and took the opportunity to get the recipes of a few of her signature dishes. Both hubby and I are huge fans of her cooking and for very good reason. This is the first time I observed her cooking and loved the fact that she made everything look so easy! Having learnt a few of her staples, when I went back to Delhi to visit my family there, I made sure I showed off. One of the dishes I prepared was mutton stew, a preparation I know dad loves, expect he has always had it with fish as the main ingredient. 🙂 (a fish moilee actually. But as long as the gravy has coconut in it, dad’s happy!)

Even as I write this entry I can hear the merry bubble of the dish cooking and the fragrance of the whole spices working their magic on the chicken is driving me daft. As the aroma wafts in, all I can see floating in my mind’s eye are loaves of white bread. The combination is as inseparable as Jeeves and Wooster, Wallace and Gromit or Karamchand and Kitty. Well maybe not to a true blue malyali; no it won’t be. But I ain’t one so I will maintain this assertion! Though I have to admit, the combo of stew and appam is quite explosive. Another reason I am rooting for bread right now is because I still haven’t tried my hand at appam making, despite all ingredients being present in the pantry.

Anyway to the recipe we go. As always, this one comes with certain improvisations.



a)      Coriander powder: lots

b)      Pepper: one tbsp

c)      Salt: to taste

d)      Red chili powder: a pinch

e)      Curry leaves: lots

f)        Green chillies: two; finely chopped

g)      Lime juice: three tbsp

To cook:

a)      Chicken: 850 g

b)      Mustard seeds:  a tsp

c)      Cloves, cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks**: 4 each

d)      Bay leaves**: one (if big) three (if small)

e)      Star anise**: one

f)        Garlic: 6 pods, finely chopped

g)      Ginger: equivalent to the amount of garlic used

h)      Red chili powder

i)        Coriander powder*: one tbsp

j)        Curry leaves: a few more

k)      Tomato: one (small)

l)        Salt: to taste

m)    Coconut milk: one cup

n)      Coconut cream: half a cup

o)      Oil: two tbsp


a)      Marinate the chicken for as long as you can (maximum overnight, minimum one-and-a-half hours)

b)      Heat oil, splutter mustard seeds.

c)      Add whole spices and fry only till light brown.

d)      Add onions, fry till brown.

e)      Add ginger and garlic. Fry till the lovely aroma of spices and G&G rises (which should be just a few minutes). Now add curry leaves

f)        Next come red chilli powder and coriander powder. Fry till the powders lose the raw taste

g)      Add chicken and fry for a few minutes.

h)      Now add the coconut milk and tomatoes**. Cook till the gravy is ¾ or so of original quantity/the chicken should be cooked.

i)        Finally put in the coconut cream and cook for another 7 minutes or so.

j)        The final product should have a thickish gravy.

*Of all the spices going into the dish, coriander powder is the star. It gives this dish its distinct taste. This I learnt on the trip back home this summer; made quite a difference as the dish had a more distinct “stew-like” taste than my earlier attempts. But this version is not entirely malayali, or at least they way it is made back at out tharavad. ** I don’t believe whole spices or tomato are used the original mallu stew. However, I did because I love the kick they give any meat dish. This dish sees my Punjabi side making some interesting contributions to the malayali flavours.

Oh and the palak dish, the recipe will follow in later days.

Stew tid-bits:

  • The dish is called Isthu in kerala.
  • You can substitute chicken for mutton or vegetables (carrot, potato and beans. I have never tried using any other than these) if you like. Or you can combine the veggies and one of the meats if you fancy.
  • Believe it or not, it is one of the top-ranking b’fast dishes back home. Goes well with different kind of appams (though bread remains my favourite, esp the sweet kind you get in Kerala)

4 thoughts on “Stewing in the magic of ishtu

  1. Hey Prerna, this chicken stew preparation makes me feel hungry while i read about it 😀 seems u master the art…lovely!!! i still have no clue how to cook non-veg food 😦

    • Hey Shubh! So good to see you here! Thank you for your kind words. No baba, no master-shaster, just doodling around; but yes having a good time for sure! 🙂 U know till last year, I hadn’t cooked non-veg food either. But once I started, there was no stopping me! It’s just a matter of attempting it once. Start with something simple to gain confidence, that’s what I did. All the best!

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