Indian food, particularly regional cuisine, is heavily influenced by its various rulers and foreign inspirations — one of the most enduring influences is our neighbor to the north: China. While at first glance, Indian and Chinese food appear to have almost nothing in common, but you will find an array of Chinese dishes that have been “Indian-ized” in the South, especially with the use of soy sauce, coconut milk, and spices, like five spice and star anise.

Take this recipe for chili chicken. This is a classic example of South Indian Chinese cooking, with a soy sauce marinade adding the “Chinese” element, and bursts of hot green chilies and tangy vinegar making it uniquely South Indian.

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South Indian Chinese food is well-known all over the world as a cuisine in its own right. I joke that I was so used to eating all that heavily spiced “Chinese” food, that when I first tasted authentic Chinese food, I turned my nose up at how non-spicy it was. It took me a while to get used to it, and while real Chinese food can also be spicy, it’s really nothing like what we get in India.

Chinese food is also hugely popular on the Indian streets. It’s not unusual to find vendors all over the country stir-frying vegetables and noodles or ladling out scoops of fragrant fried rice. Manchurian-style food is especially popular, like deep-fried chicken or vegetables that have been liberally slathered in chili ketchup and soy sauce. You can certainly see its appeal to the student population in India — this food is cheap, deeply savory, and an experience in itself. Fried rice, hakka noodles, ginger and garlic chicken — us South Indians always find a way to spice them up even more.

It’s no wonder that one of my first stops whenever I’m home for a visit is one of these ubiquitous South Indian Chinese eateries.

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THE PREPARATION 

  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs (6 to 8 smallish ones)
  • 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce, plus extra if required
  • Ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon bouillon powder (or 1/2 a stock cube)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons neutral cooking oil
  • 1-inch piece ginger, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 to 2 green bird’s eye chili(s), sliced (add more if you like your sauce spicy)
  • 1 medium green bell pepper, sliced
  • 1/2 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • Salt to taste
  • Fresh, chopped cilantro, to garnish
  • Sliced green onions, to garnish
  • Cooked rice or noodles, to serve

THE EXECUTION

Cut each chicken thigh into 2 to 3 smaller pieces. Place them in a large bowl, and stir in the soy sauce, black pepper, and bouillon powder. Cover and refrigerate for a couple of hours, or even overnight.

When ready to cook, let the chicken come to room temperature on the counter for 20 minutes. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat, and add the ginger, garlic, and bird’s eye chili. Sauté for a minute, until fragrant, then add the green pepper and chicken. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes, coating the chicken in the ginger, garlic, and chili mixture.

Turn down the heat to low, and cook gently for 10 to 15 minutes, covered, until the chicken is cooked. If the pan looks like it’s drying out, add 1/4 cup of water.

Whisk the vinegar, cornstarch, and sugar in a small bowl. Once the chicken is almost cooked, uncover the pan, and add the vinegar-cornstarch mixture. Continue to cook for a few more minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly. Taste and add salt to taste.

Serve, garnished with green onions and cilantro, over rice or noodles. This dish reheats and freezes very well; the dish is even better on the second day. Leftovers will keep refrigerated for 1 week or frozen for up to 3 months.