A few years ago, Rick, the creator of mambo chicken cha cha, received as a Christmas gift a selection of curry powders blended by our local spice apothecary and was eager to dance with them. (The the original African language meaning of “mambo” is “a dancing conversation with the gods.”) He chose the “face-forward,” slightly spicy Madras blend to offset the tartness of the buttermilk and jazzed the mix up a notch with cumin and red chili flakes. He then cooked the dish combining two methods: the classic Southern-fried chicken technique of pre-soaking the chicken in buttermilk with, then, instead of frying it, baking it right in the buttermilk soak with its exotic Eastern spices. The buttermilk tenderizes the chicken and adds its own dimension of flavor enhancement, making the meat richer, more buttery, and more complex.
All parts of the chicken work with this treatment. For a special dinner occasion, the finished dish looks particularly appealing with bone-in, wing-attached half-breasts. But, for a quick, simple, low-fat protein-on-the-run workday meal, use boneless, skinless breasts. Four hours, up to overnight, soaking is a good amount of time, but even 2 hours will have a tenderizing effect on the meat.
1 teaspoon Madras-style curry powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes, to taste
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups buttermilk, shaken to mix in clumps that have settled to the bottom
2 bone-in chicken half-breasts, preferably with wing still attached, or 2 large boneless, skinless half-breasts
1. Combine the curry powder, cumin, chili flakes, salt, and black pepper in a dish large enough to hold the chicken pieces in one layer. Add 1/4 cup of buttermilk and stir to mix. Add another 1/4 cup buttermilk and stir to mix again. Slowly stir in the remaining buttermilk. Add the chicken to the dish and turn to coat the pieces all around. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, up to overnight.
2. When ready to cook, remove the chicken from the refrigerator and transfer it and the liquid to an oven dish if necessary. Place in the oven, turn the oven heat on to 400°F, and bake, uncovered, until the chicken juices run clear with no pink, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
3. If desired, serve with steamed basmati or medium grain white rice topped with blanched fresh green peas or wilted spinach and sprinkled with a little chopped fresh mint.