There are the recipes you inherit, the ones you find, and the ones you want. And then there are the ones that you live in. Coming upon one of these is always a bit of a stunner, when you have to stop and identify the source of this strange, emotional pull towards the measurements, the directions, the list of ingredients. I was paging through Serious Eats, the new book by the editors of the website of the same name, and there it was: street corner chicken-and-rice with white sauce. Serves 4 to 6.
Street corner chicken-and-rice is one of the underheralded gems of New York City; immediately one of my favorite things about the city since I moved there a dozen years ago. Utterly ubiquitous anywhere there are offices in Manhattan, Halal carts (so-called because they’re mostly run by Muslims who observe Halal diets) sling Styrofoam boxes of deeply spiced bird, throwing off clouds of garlicky steam, feeding whole cities’ worth of lunchers every day. Each midday, the ritual repeats itself thousands of times: a call, a flash of a five dollar bill. Three arcing scoops of rice – sometimes white, sometimes brown, sometimes day-glo orange – land in a box, a paint spatula dumps chicken on top, a tongful of “salad,” and then go the squeeze bottles: fire-hose jets of mysterious “white sauce,” reputed to be herbed yogurt, or mayonnaise, or just straight-up sorcery.
For years I thought there was no such thing as a bad Halal chicken-and-rice cart. I was wrong, but the impression they give is one of constancy, solidity: something that is everywhere and good and there for you whenever you need it.
As I become ever-more an aficionado of the Halal carts, I found tribes: fans who will wait in winter air, warm from liquor, for an hour at a time for the chicken-and-rice at 53rd and 6th (that’s Street and Avenue, respectively, if you want to be among them.) Others who swear by the Express Power Lunch carts, whose smaller scoops of food are countered by the otherworldly fragrance of their sweetly spiced basmati rice. And then there are the followers of the cart whose Pakistani-ness is touched by living in Trinidad, whose chicken-and-rice carries the jerk flavors of allspice and Scotch Bonnet peppers. Or the one run by a Bangladeshi cook who spins the classic in the direction of sautéed lamb cubes with shallot vinaigrette, a taste he picked up on while working as a cook in a luxe restaurant. These five-dollar lunches do more than feed or delight – they tell the stories of obscure corners of the city.
It turns out I was not alone in my catholic tastes for these street treats, though. I was never alone, it turns out, and on the internet, I could find my tribes of tribes. One of the most fellow-traveler of these communities is at Serious Eats. As Ed Levine, the founder, writes in the book: “As one of my favorite street chefs, Mohammad Rahman of New York’s Kwik Meal, told me, ‘Here I get to make my food the way I want it, sell it at half the price I’d have to sell it for in a restaurant, nobody yells at me, and I get to spend my evenings at home with my family. God bless America.’”
Serious Eaters are people who may come to food face first, tongues wagging, but who are about appreciation, not judgment. Who are about finding the delicious, not one-upsmanship. A community who may first consume the food, but who also want to engage with the people who make it – to learn from and respect and, in some cases, reverse-engineer from them.
Here, they’ve reverse engineered the ur-Halal chicken-and-rice. Enjoy, preferably in a park with fall sunshine and some occasional taxicab honking.
Halal Cart–Style Chicken and Rice with White Sauce
Excerpted from Serious Eats, part food guide, part cookbook, part conversation with people who think French Fries are a perfectly interesting thing to talk about for the better part of an afternoon.
Serves 4 to 6
For the chicken
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped (about 11/2 tablespoons)
1/4 cup light olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of excess fat (6 to 8 thighs)
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
For the rice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1/2 cups long-grain or Basmati rice
2 1/2 cups chicken broth
Kosher salt and freshly ground
For the sauce
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground
1 head iceberg lettuce, shredded
1 large tomato, cut into wedges
Fluffy pocketless pita bread, brushed in butter, lightly toasted, and cut into 1 × 3-inch strips
Harissa-style hot sauce
1. For the chicken: Combine the lemon juice, oregano, coriander, garlic, and olive oil in a blender. Blend until smooth. Season the marinade to taste with kosher salt and black pepper. Place the chicken in a 1-gallon zipper-lock bag and add half of the marinade (reserve the remaining marinade in the refrigerator). Turn the chicken to coat, seal the bag, and marinate the chicken in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours, turning occasionally to redistribute the marinade (see Note).
2. Remove the chicken from the bag and pat it dry with paper towels. Season with kosher salt and pepper, going heavy on the pepper. Heat the oil in a 12-inch heavy-bottomed cast iron or stainless-steel skillet over medium-high heat until it is lightly smoking. Add the chicken pieces and cook without disturbing until they are lightly browned on the first side, about 4 minutes. Using tongs, flip the chicken. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the chicken is cooked through and the center of each thigh registers 165°F. on an instant-read thermometer, about 6 minutes longer. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and allow to cool for 5 minutes.
3. Using a chef’s knife, roughly chop the chicken into 1/2- to 1/4-inch chunks. Transfer to a medium bowl, add the remaining marinade, cover loosely with plastic, and refrigerate while you cook the rice and prepare the sauce.
4. For the rice: Melt the butter over medium heat in a large Dutch oven. Add the turmeric and cumin and cook until fragrant but not browned, about 1 minute. Add the rice and stir to coat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the rice is lightly toasted, about 4 minutes. Add the chicken broth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 15 minutes without disturbing. Remove from the heat and allow to rest until the water is completely absorbed and the rice is tender, about 15 minutes.
5. For the sauce: In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, yogurt, sugar, vinegar, lemon juice, parsley, and 2 teaspoons black pepper. Whisk to combine. Season to taste with salt.
6. To serve: Return the entire contents of the chicken bowl (chicken, marinade, and all juices) to the skillet. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until heated through. To serve, divide the rice, lettuce, tomato, and toasted pita bread evenly among four to six plates. Pile the chicken on top of the rice. Top with the white sauce and hot sauce. Serve immediately, passing extra sauce at the table.
Note: Do not marinate the chicken longer than 4 hours or it’ll get a mushy texture. If you must delay cooking the chicken for any reason, remove it from the marinade, pat it dry with paper towels, and refrigerate until ready to cook.