Here in Atlanta, we continue to enjoy our summer vacation. Other than relishing in my mother's great cooking and enjoying all of our favorite American food, we have spent a fair bit of time at our favorite grocery stores, stocking up on favorite products which are either tough to find or expensive back in Thailand. My favorite grocery store is of course Trader Joe's, where I love to peruse the aisles and check out all the new products (as well as old favorites) and dream up new recipes using them. This time my imagination was peaked by the Chickenless Crispy Tenders, which basically seemed like imitation chicken nuggets made with soy protein, vital wheat gluten and organic "ancient grain" flour.
I know that some people are skeptical about fake meat products, but I'm a big fan. All of that soy and gluten are not necessarily healthy on a regular basis but as an occasional indulgence there is no problem (unless you are gluten intolerant of course!). According to TJ's, these tenders are an exceptional source of lean protein and have no cholesterol, saturated or trans fats or artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. Now there's something to feel good about! Looking at them, I immediately thought about Chicken 65.
Chicken 65 is somewhat of a legendary dish in South India. It consists of battered, fried pieces of chicken simmered in a spicy sauce and is utterly delicious. Vegetarian versions abound, typically using either paneer (fresh Indian cheese) or cauliflower, but the original version has chicken. According to Sanjay Thumma (the Vah Chef) from whom I adapted this recipe, there are conflicting reports as to how the dish came to be called Chicken 65. Some say that the traditional recipe called for 65 different ingredients, while some claim that you need to make at least 65 attempts before mastering the recipe (yikes!). Still others will tell you that you need a full 65 minutes to get over the experience of eating Chicken 65. But the more likely story is that this was a popular dish in a military cantine in Tamil Nadu, where soldiers who were unable to read Tamil would just order the #65 on the menu, which happened to be this spicy chicken dish.
Using TJ's Chickenless Crispy Tenders not only allows you to make a delicious vegetarian (actually vegan) version of Chicken 65 but also lets you bypass the whole process of battering and frying your chicken. All you have to do is pop these tenders into the oven for 15-20 minutes and then simmer them in a super simple sauce. According to Luis and my brother Pradheep, it totally tastes like chicken. So what's not to love!? If you don't have access to Trader Joe's, the Gardein brand Seven Grain Crispy Tenders which are available in other U.S. and Canadian supermarkets would make a fine substitute. If like us you don't have access to any of these products where you live (sniff sniff!), I plan to come up with a seitan version of this dish soon, so stay tuned!
Adapted from Sanjay Thumma, The Vah Chef
Serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as a side dish
1 (8.1 ounce) packet Trader Joe's Chickenless Crispy Tenders
1 tablespoon canola or light olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon ginger paste
1 tablespoon garlic paste or minced garlic
1/2 to 1 whole serrano chili, diced (leave the seeds in for heat)
10-12 curry leaves
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon chili garlic paste
1 tablespoon ketchup
A drop or two of red food color (or dash of red color powder dissolved in a tiny bit of water)
1/3 cup water
Salt, to taste (optional)
1/4 cup chopped fresh coriander
1. Preheat an oven or a toaster oven to 425 F. Place the tenders on a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes, according to package directions, turning over once. When they are done, remove from the oven and place on a plate and set aside to cool.
2. While the tenders are baking, warm the oil over medium heat in a saucepan. Add the cumin seeds.
3. Once the cumin seeds starts to pop, add the ginger and garlic pastes and stir. Cook for a couple of minutes and then add the chili and curry leaves. Stir well.
4. Add the cumin powder, chili powder and black pepper. Mix well and cook for a couple of minutes and then incorporate the chili garlic paste, ketchup and red food color.
5. While you continue to stir, add the water and give everything a good mix.
6. Dice the tenders into thirds. Once the mixture comes together as a thick sauce, add the tenders and mix well. Add a bit of salt to taste, if desired (I didn't add any since the tenders are already salted), and garnish with fresh coriander.