Naadan Kozhi Curry is the dish that sparked my interest in cooking, and was fundamental in developing the skills I have today. I have such visceral memories of my Amma making this throughout my life, serving it with rice or fresh chapatis; it was regularly on our table when we had family coming to visit or for a weekday meal. These memories and the richness of the chicken cooked slowly in coconut milk, paired with the aromatic spices and the earthiness of the curry leaves makes this dish one of my favorite comfort foods.
In Malayalam, naadan means “home-style” which takes on a deeper meaning when filtered through the lens of the diaspora. So often the motherland is viewed as a place of cultural purity where tradition and customs are unwavering. This romanticized construction of what “home” and “authenticity” are can leave those of us in the diaspora feeling inadequate. Learning how to make this dish helped me to understand that notions of “home” and “authenticity” are not limited by territorial boundaries. For me, breaking away from the expectation of being “authentically Indian” was a step towards decolonizing my identity.
Growing up in Springfield, IL, a small, predominantly white town after moving from Kerala at the age of 5, my identity was firmly embedded as the “other”. While I was disconnected from any sense of “Indianness” in my youth, my surroundings and peers were constant reminders of my inherent difference. Living in that environment put my identity into a state of suspension; I was brown by default without ever needing to question what that meant. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago for college that my identity was challenged and critiqued in ways that rendered me either “too white” or “not brown enough”. The rhetoric behind these critiques was often abusive and toxic, but it pushed me to explore a part of my identity that I neglected and at times felt ashamed of growing up.
As a way to manage my identity crisis, I turned to food to form my own connection with the diaspora. I began to scour Chicago to find a chicken curry that was like the one my Amma made. Unfortunately, this quest typically ended in disappointing interpretations of North Indian-style chicken curries. I initially set out to satisfy the cravings I had for my Amma’s cooking, but in hindsight I was also searching for the sense of comfort and nostalgia that I associate with Naadan Kozhi curry. When I returned home for winter break during my first year of college, I told my parents about my dilemma. The obvious solution was for me to learn how to make it myself. At first, the recipe they showed me was a stripped-down, bare bones version of the one they make. Haphazardly cut onions, jarred minced garlic, boneless, skinless chicken breast, and pre-made chicken masala defined my novice attempts at making the dish I admired so much.
In a lot of ways, my cooking at this stage reflected where I was at in relation to understanding my identity; an uninspired product of the white American culture that surrounded me. The Naadan Kozhi curry I made was as soulless as the pre-packaged ingredients I was putting into it. My disappointment in my cooking led to my feelings un-belonging worsening and I found myself continuing to seek validation in my identity. The sense of “home” I was craving in this dish couldn’t be satisfied by using shortcuts, so I became determined to perfect my recipe and technique. Bulky onions were replaced with petite shallots, boneless skinless chicken breast was swapped for fresh, whole chicken that I learned how to butcher, and boxed chicken masala was cast aside for hand-ground spices that I curated into my own masala.
I continued to cook throughout college as well as take classes on South Asian history and culture. As I progressed in both, I began to feel more comfortable in my Malayali identity. By taking classes, I was able to contextualize the struggles and achievements of the generations of South Asians that came before me. I developed my own relationship with my heritage, instead of what society had pushed on me; one that I could be proud of as well as critique and learn from.
At the same time, cooking became much more than a hobby for me, it evolved into an expression and preservation of culture. I could articulate my identity in ways that I had never been able to before. It gave me the confidence to stake a claim in that aspect of myself and overcome the long-lasting struggle of “feeling Indian”. Now, after years of practice I’m finally able to make Naadan Kozhi Curry well enough that my Amma will ask me to make it when we have family coming over to visit. When I make this dish for family and friends, and get compliments on or requests for my recipe, I finally feel that sense of security in myself and my identity that I chased after for years.