Asian Foods Ep.1


Asian Foods : CHICKEN SAAG (INDIAN CHICKEN AND SPINACH CURRY)

by Thomas M. Tillman
This quick and easy Chicken Saag (chicken and spinach curry aka palak chicken) is the fastest curry you'll ever make from scratch. It's healthy and delicious with a flavor bomb of spices. You'll never need to order Indian takeout again with this recipe in your arsenal.
Indian chicken saag spinach curry in a white bowl with a spoon lifting some out
(This recipe was originally published in March 2019, but was updated with new photos and content in 2020). Since first making this chicken saag recipe, I have made it countless times. I always amaze myself with how easy it is to make, and how it satisfies my craving for Indian food. Although my favorite Indian curries when I go out to eat are chicken tikka masala and chicken korma, I have since fallen head over heels for chicken saag (palak chicken). If you've never eaten or even seen Indian chicken saag curry, you may be a little surprised by it's appearance. It's a cooked spinach curry, so the color and texture is that of a muted green puree.
closeup of chicken saag in a small white bowl
Take my word for it though, the aroma and flavors of this curry are out of this world! If you like Indian food, definitely give this recipe a try. The taste will speak for itself. Believe it or not, this recipe rivals the saag at my favorite local Indian restaurant! I may even say I prefer my own heavily spiced concoction to theirs. It contains nearly a dozen spices and aromatics in the pureed spinach sauce.

INGREDIENT NOTES

Cubed chicken breast, baby spinach, tomato paste, yogurt, ginger, onion, garlic, and spices.
  • Chicken: Use boneless, skinless chicken breasts or chicken tenders for this recipe, and cube them into small, bite-size 1-inch pieces.
  • Spinach: I use fresh baby spinach since it's already trimmed and easy to use. You can also use regular spinach and trim the stalky stems yourself. Alternatively you can also use a combination of spinach and other dark leafy greens like kale, mustard greens, or Swiss chard. Fenugreek leaves are also quite traditional to include.
  • Aromatics & Spices: For this chicken and spinach curry you'll need onion, garlic and fresh ginger for your aromatics. For spices you'll need salt, ground coriander, garam masala (a spice blend), ground turmeric, ground cumin, ground cardamom, and chili powder (such as Indian chili powder or cayenne, NOT American chili powder which is a spice blend and not pure, ground chiles). If you are missing any of the spices you can omit them, but the flavor of the curry will be a bit different than the original. I recommend using all these spices for optimal results.
  • Tomato Paste: Tomato paste comes in cans or resealable squeezable tubes. If you have leftover tomato paste to use up from making this chicken saag recipe, use it to make Tas Kebab, Czech Beef Goulash, Individual Beef and Mushroom Pies, Autumn Vegetable Soup with Sausage and Green Lentils, or Armenian Lentil Soup with Macaroni.
  • Yogurt: Use plain thick yogurt such as Greek-style, but any thick unflavored yogurt will work.
Indian chicken saag spinach curry in a white bowl with a spoon lifting some out

HOW TO MAKE IT

The first step in making this chicken saag curry is to make the spinach sauce. Heat a little bit of oil in a non-stick skillet, and add chopped onion, garlic, and ginger. Cook until softened and aromatic (PHOTO 1). Add your mixture of spices (PHOTO 2).
Step-by-step photos of cooking chopped onions in a pan and then adding spices.
Stir your tomato paste into water to dissolve, then add it to the spices and aromatics in the pan (PHOTO 3). Mix until combined, and then stir in the spinach leaves. Cover the pan to allow the spinach to wilt. Stir the mixture until all the spinach is wilted, but still vibrant green (PHOTOS 4-6).
Step-by-step photos of making a curry sauce and then cooking spinach in it.
Remove from the heat and puree the mixture in your blender or food processor. It should still have a bit of texture so don't over-do it. The sauce is ready!
Before and after photos of cooked spinach in spice sauce in a blender.
Next cook cubes of chicken in a bit of oil until cooked through (PHOTOS 7-8).
Before and after photos of cubed chicken breast cooking in a pan.
Pour the spinach sauce over the chicken, and continue to cook so the flavors can meld together (PHOTOS 9-10). Stir in a big spoonful of plain yogurt, and this healthy chicken and spinach curry is ready (PHOTOS 11-12).
Step-by-step photos of adding saag sauce to chicken and stirring in yogurt.
The recipe comfortably yields 4 servings, although if you are super hungry you can divide it into 2 or 3 larger portions of chicken saag. I typically serve this simple chicken and spinach curry with plain basmati rice or jeera rice, basmati rice made with cumin seeds. You can also serve it with another dish, such as Chana Dal to expand the menu and yield more overall servings.
3 small white bowls filled with yellow chana dal, rice, and chicken saag

EXPERT TIPS

Making this recipe on a weeknight is fast and easy. You can prep your chicken in advance by cubing it up and refrigerating it until it's time to cook. You can also measure out all your spices, mix them together, and set them aside. The aromatics are also easy enough to chop, measure, and prep in advance. Then at the last minute, just get cooking. The saag sauce cooks quite rapidly, as does the chicken. Your authentic, homemade Indian meal will be ready before you know it! Technically, you can even cook the spinach sauce ahead of time and refrigerate it, and then finish the dish by cooking the chicken and adding the sauce to heat it through. This authentic chicken saag curry is just as delicious reheated the following day. I often take a portion to work for lunch and will admit it's probably the best work lunch ever! If anything the flavor gets even better over time, and it's very easy to reheat in a microwave if that's all you have access to.
Closeup of chicken saag curry in a wide skillet.

FAQS

Is chicken saag healthy?

This curry is quite healthy compared to many other curry dishes. The amount of oil is minimal, but can be reduced further if you prefer, especially if using a nonstick pan to cook it. You may also use reduced fat or fat free plain yogurt to save a few additional calories. Although you can make this chicken saag recipe with chicken thighs, I prefer white meat which is also leaner than the alternative.

What's the difference between Saag and Palak?

"Saag" is more of a broad term for green leafy vegetable curries, and "palak" is specific to curries made with spinach. Both apply in this case, though I've always called it the former so that's what I'll stick with.

Can I use frozen spinach instead of fresh spinach?

If using frozen spinach use about 3 ⅓ ounces of frozen spinach (or about ⅓ of a 10-ounce package) to get the equivalent of 8 ounces fresh spinach. Thaw and squeeze it thoroughly of excess liquid. You can skip the step of wilting the spinach in the spice sauce, and just transfer the spice sauce and thawed frozen spinach to the blender together and proceed as directed in the recipe.

Indian chicken saag spinach curry in a white bowl

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion finely chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 2 cloves garlic minced (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
  • 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt plus more as needed
  • 1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1 ½ teaspoons garam masala
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • ¼ teaspoon Indian chili powder or cayenne pepper or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • ½ cup water
  • 8 ounces baby spinach or trimmed regular spinach, washed and dried
  • 1 pound chicken breast or tenders cut into 1-inch pieces
  • ¼ cup plain yogurt preferably thick Greek-style yogurt

Instructions

  • Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat (if you plan to double the recipe, definitely use a pot instead of a skillet so you have room for all the spinach!). Add the onion, garlic, and ginger and saute until softened, about 4 to 5 minutes, stirring regularly, and lowering heat to medium-low if it starts to brown too quickly.
  • Over medium heat, add the salt, coriander, garam masala, turmeric, cumin, cardamom, and chili powder, and stir on medium-low heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds or so. Dissolve the tomato paste in the water by stirring vigorously together in a measuring cup or bowl. Then stir into the spices in the pan, creating a thick spiced sauce, about 1 minute.
  • Add the spinach and gently stir to combine, as the skillet will be very full. Cover and raise the heat to medium-high, allowing the spinach to start to wilt. Occasionally remove the lid, stir, and then cover again until most the spinach has begun to wilt, about 3 to 5 minutes (can depend on the size of your spinach leaves). Remove the lid and finish stirring the spinach until it is completely wilted but still bright green, another minute.
  • Transfer spinach mixture to a blender and puree until relatively smooth but still a bit chunky (you don’t want it to be super smooth, a bit of texture is good). Taste and adjust salt and spice if necessary.
  • Meanwhile, wipe the skillet clean with a paper towel, return it to medium-high heat, and add 1 tablespoon of oil. When the oil is hot, add the cubed chicken pieces, sprinkle salt over the top to season, and cook until almost completely cooked through, about 5 to 7 minutes. Pour the spinach mixture back over the chicken, using a rubber spatula to get every last bit out of the blender, and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes to allow the flavors to meld and the chicken to finish cooking. Stir in the yogurt, and serve immediately with basmati rice and/or naan.

Notes

  • I typically serve this simple curry with plain basmati rice or jeera rice, basmati rice made with cumin seeds.
  • The recipe comfortably yields 4 servings, although if you are super hungry you can divide it into 2 or 3 larger portions.
  • You can also use a combination of dark leafy greens in this recipe. Try half spinach and half kale, mustard greens, or Swiss chard as another option. Those other greens are more bitter and will change the general flavor of this curry. Fenugreek leaves are also quite traditional to include. The combination of greens is simply a matter of personal preference.
  • If using frozen spinach instead of fresh use about 3 ⅓ ounces of the frozen spinach (or about ⅓ of the 10-ounce package) to get the equivalent of 8 ounces fresh spinach. Thaw and squeeze it thoroughly of excess liquid. You can skip the step of wilting the spinach in the spice sauce, and just transfer the spice sauce and thawed frozen spinach to the blender together and proceed as directed.
  • This recipe uses kosher salt (aka cooking salt, kitchen salt, coarse salt outside of the US). If you are using table salt, definitely scale down the salt as that is a saltier type of salt! The type of salt will make a big difference in how salty your food tastes, so keep that in mind.