In my previous life, working until late hours in London, I often resorted to take-away for dinner. My favourite? The chicken in yoghurt from the Afghan place around the corner. A mild, fragrant and absolutely delicious curry! Alas, since moving to Istanbul it’s no longer easily available. Lucky then, that this home made version, while not an exact copy, hits all the right spots!
I still remember my first visit to Afghan Kitchen in London’s Angel district. Having lived nearby for years, I was well familiar with the area. But I’d never heard of this place until a fellow student suggested trying the place out for dinner.
This was in 2009 or 10, and I had taken a break from hectic office life to do Master’s degree in global politics. I had no idea about Afghan cuisine at the time, though I suspected that my friend, with a penchant for conflict zones, was more interested in the Afghan than the Kitchen part of the restaurant’s name. Whatever the motivations, I was wrong to come with low expectations.
The humble restaurant (it’s tiny, and with no signs out front) has been around since 1994. Started by a retired photo journalist, it’s served more or less the same, simple menu of four meat and four vegetarian dishes since the beginning. The decor is basic, the food prepared in big trays and microwaved to perfection upon order.
And the food – while it may look as basic as its surroundings – has a flavour which is anything but basic. No wonder it’s become one of the city’s favourite cheap eats.
A couple of years later, I moved to a flat just around the corner from Afghan Kitchen. The bus stop where I got off when coming home from work was literally ten metres from the entrance of the restaurant, where you’d never have to wait more than a few minutes for your take-away order to be completed. Safe to say it became my go-to quick dinner.
My favourite on the money? Chicken in yoghurt. Lavand-e-murgh.
Afghan style chicken with yoghurt
I must have eaten the dish dozens of times during the two years I lived in St. Peter’s Street, literally a stone’s throw from the restaurant. Yet, I had no conception of what might give the dish its wonderful flavour. The obvious – chicken and yoghurt – apart, of course.
Herbs were definitely involved, but which ones? And spices. Enough to be noticed, but not enough to be obvious.
And chili! This was the most surprising part of the dish for me. I tend to associate yoghurt with the mild and cooling, not spicy and fragrant. I loved it!
If you’re here looking for the original Afghan Kitchen recipe (as I’ve been for years), I’m sorry to disappoint you. I haven’t (yet) been able to completely recreate it. But with this dish, I’ve come close enough to achieve the most important thing. An Afghani chicken recipe which gives me the same sense of comfort that Afghan Kitchen’s chicken with yoghurt dish did.
I started with a recipe from Afghan Kitchen Recipes (which have nothing to do with the restaurant of the same name). The core ingredients are the same – chicken, yoghurt, herbs, some spices. But I’ve made a few changes, to get closer to the version I know and love from London.
A few notes on cooking with yoghurt
This Afghan style chicken in yoghurt is simple to make, though there is one step of the process which sometimes has its own challenges. Warm yoghurt sauces curdle easily.
It’s not the end of the world – the flavour’s pretty much the same. The aesthetics are another question. So how to avoid a curdled sauce?
The most important thing to keep in mind, is that yoghurt hates quick changes in temperatures. The same goes for very hot temperatures.
Therefore, make sure that the yoghurt is room temperature or warmer before adding to the pan. I sometimes whisk in a little boiling water (little by little) to gently warm it up before adding to the hot pan.
Also, make sure your pan is over a very low heat when adding the yoghurt. Then leave it there until you’re ready. This is not the dish to spike up the heat to finish cooking more quickly. Chicken in yoghurt will take the time it needs. If you’re hungry before it’s ready, grab a few nuts while you wait!
Elements which help bind the proteins of the yoghurt are also helpful. Fat is one such element. I always recommend using full-fat yoghurt when you’re planning to heat it up. You can even add a little cream, sour cream or creme fraiche to bulk it up further. This will make the dish extra rich too.
For the same reason, I stir a little flour into the yoghurt. This also helps bind it and reduce the risk of splitting. But don’t go over board. Too much and your sauce will thicken a lot. Some people add an egg to the yoghurt for a similar effect.
Finally, avoid adding any acidic elements until just before serving. Acids such as lemon juice or vinegar are typically added to separate cheese curds from whey. So it goes without saying that this will not do your yoghurt based sauce any favours. It’s not particularly relevant in this recipe (which contains no lemon juice or vinegar), but something to keep in mind for other sauces.
But know this: This Afghani style chicken in yoghurt will still taste delicious even if the sauce curdles. And if it happens, you could always try to salvage it by removing the solids and whisking in a couple of tablespoons of yoghurt and a little flour.
How to serve Afghan style chicken in yoghurt
To me, there’s only one way to enjoy Afghan style chicken in yoghurt: The way I always had it from Afghan Kitchen. With rice and fresh bread on the side.
At the restaurant, the bread was similar to Central Asian breads. Similar to Turkish pide in shape, but flatter and harder and brushed liberally with butter. At home, I often make a pan fried flatbread reminiscent of naan bread. Soft, delicious and super simple to make!
Unlike the restaurant, I also like to serve a fresh salad alongside. As everything else is soft, a crunchy salad is a good idea. Most recently, I simply chopped a carrot and a turnip into matchsticks, put them on a plate alongside some rocket and rizzle pomegranate molasses and olive oil atop. Perfect!
Any leftovers keep well for a few days in the fridge. Again, though, be careful when reheating to avoid curdling.
This Afghani chicken recipe serves 3-4.
- 300 g greek yoghurt
- 1 Tbsp white flour
- 4 Tbsp neutral oil (I use sunflower oil) or ghee
- a generous handful (15 g) fresh coriander (thick stalks removed), finely chopped
- a generous handful (15 g) leaves of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 1 large onion, halved and cut into thin half moons
- 2 green chilies (remove the seeds if you like), finely chopped, or any other chili to taste
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
- lemon, to serve (optional)
- salt and pepper
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed to a paste with a little salt
- 1 Tbsp finely shredded fresh ginger
- 100 ml water
- 600 g chicken filet (thigh is best), cut into bite-size chunks
- salt and pepper
- Mix the garlic, ginger and water well and add the chicken. Mix to coat and season generously with salt and pepper. Cover and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least one hour, or as long as you have time for.
- Which the yoghurt and flour until no lumps appear. Leave at room temperature whilst preparing the rest of the dish. If the yoghurt mixture is still cold when it's time to add it to the pot, whisk in up to 100 ml boiling water, little by little while whisking constantly.
- Heat a frying pan and a thick bottomed pot over a medium heat.
- In the frying pan, fry herbs in 2 Tbsp oil or ghee until starting to darken and dry up, 10-15 minutes. Stir regularly, making sure the herbs don't burn. Set aside.
- In the pot, fry onions in the remaining 2 Tbsp oil or ghee until starting to soften, but not yet coloured, 8-10 minutes. Stir regularly and season with salt and pepper as you go. Add the chili and keep frying until it starts to soften, stirring regularly, 2-3 minutes. Add the spices and fry for another 15-20 seconds, stirring constantly. Add the chicken along with its marinade. Fry until most of the water as evaporated, stirring occasionally, 4-5 minutes.
- Turn the heat down to low. Add the herbs (along with the oil they were fried in) to the pot. Mix well. Add the yoghurt mixture and mix well. Slowly bring to a boil and leave to simmer with lid partially on at a low heat until the flavours have settled and the chicken is cooked through, around half an hour. Check on the dish a few times while it cooks, adding more water if needed to get to a stew/curry-like consistency. Check if the chili heat is to your liking and season one final time with salt and pepper.
- Take off the heat and leave for a few minutes before serving.