I didn’t mean to make coconut chicken tonight but I’m so very glad I did.
I had taken two chicken breasts out of the fridge for dinner, imagining I’d make them into a stir fry with the asparagus that’s been waiting to be eaten. That sounded good to me. But then I remembered my friend Kim describing her husband’s panko-encrusted oven-roasted chicken, and that sounded really good. (and maybe like something the kids would agree to eat.) I went foraging in the pantry for the panko I was positive I had, but couldn’t find it. Instead I found regular bread crumbs and corn meal, and thought those things would be okay substitutions; maybe I’d add some Parmigiana to the breadcrumbs, some cayenne to the corn meal.
And then I found the coconut, and once I did, no other dinner would do.
I grabbed my apron, closed the door between the kitchen and the hallway where the smoke detector is, cracked a kitchen window and turned on the oven fan. I took out the chicken and sliced it into fairly uniform nuggets. I gathered my eggs, cracking two of them into a shallow bowl, filled another with flour and another with flake coconut. I set them up on the counter in front of me and started the assembly from right to left, dipping chicken into flour, then egg, then coconut before placing it onto a wax-paper lined plate on the still cold stove top. I started out using a fork for this, but then abandoned it for my fingers, like I always do.
Like I always did. Because while it’s been a good number of years (certainly not since having kids), this is a dish I’ve made with one variation countless times in my life. After about the age of 12, coconut shrimp was the dish people made in my family to say, unequivocally, I love you. I love you so much I will stand here dipping and swirling and rolling until every last bite is coated. I love you so much I will stand over a pan of hot oil, frying batches until sweat drops into my eyes and I can feel the ache at the small of my back. The oil will spit on my skin and sting and I will call them kisses and think of you.
I want to give this dish its proper credit. It belongs to my uncle, Peter Kelly, who featured it on the menu of his restaurant from its opening back in the early 1980’s. And a quick internet search tells me I can still order it, just the way I always did: golden brown and crisp, dipped in a warm sauce of Dijon mustard and heavy cream.
The way I remember it, my mother was the first one to attempt her brother’s iconic recipe at home, and from that moment on, it was the only thing anyone ever wanted from her on special occasions, eclipsing even her own sublime linguine with white clam sauce. She taught me how to make it too and have I mentioned how incredibly delicious it is? Oh, it is.
Delicious, if not especially healthy. But forget about that because it’s not like you are going to deep fry chicken every night of your life, right? That’s why they call them “special” occasions. And sometimes Friday night at home with your exhausted husband and your ornery kids is special enough.
Coconut Chicken/Shrimp (adapted from the menus of the Xaviar’s Restaurant group)
2 chicken breasts cut into uniform, 2 inch-ish nuggets/1 lb jumbo shrimp, cleaned and deveined but leave the tails on.
1/4 cup (or more) flour
1 cup (or more) flake coconut
1 tbsp (or more) Dijon mustard
1 cup heavy cream
oil for frying
Coat each piece of chicken/shrimp by dipping them first into the flour, then into the egg, then the coconut. Place them on a plate lined with wax paper, and then make layers as necessary so they don’t stick to each other.
Now you need to fry them. I bet my uncle deep-fries, and this would be best if you can manage it because the heat is more even and depending on the size of your fryer, you can do more at a time. But I don’t have a fryer. I’ve always shallow-fried them in 1 cup or so of canola oil. I don’t know exactly how much; enough to cover half of the chicken or shrimp. Heat the oil over med heat until you get a good sizzle when you throw a piece in. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Fry in batches on one side until golden (shrimp cooks MUCH faster than chicken) and then flip and fry the other side. Watch the heat carefully, turning it down if the coconut starts to burn. (Which it will; it always does.) Add more oil as needed. Remove from pan and place on a plate with paper towels.
The faster you can eat these things the better, as they will be nutty and delicious and sweet and crunchy now, but will soften (but still be nutty and delicious and sweet) if you let them sit too long. Serve them with a sauce made from the Dijon and heavy cream (I actually used Greek yogurt tonight because it’s what I had and it was different but also delicious). Warm the sauce a bit before serving. Swoon.
You’ll see coconut chicken or shrimp on menus fairly often; it’s not a novel preparation. Most of the time it’s served with a tropical fruit salsa or chutney, and while these are delicious in their own way, it’s the contrast of the spicy mustard with the sweet,toasty coconut that make this version really special.
Oh, and Rudy–my anti-meat child–devoured several pieces and licked the mustard sauce from his plate. Magical stuff, truly.