At the Table

Turmeric and Buttermilk

By: Emily Havener

One Kentucky chef taps into her Southern and Sri Lankan heritage to spice up fried chicken with her signature spice blend and turmeric

Chef Sam Fore in a yellow apron

“If you’re in Kentucky, you have to do good fried chicken.” This is the first thing chef Sam Fore of Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites in Lexington says about one of her most famous recipes. She started her business as a pop-up in a tent and is now on the brink of opening a brick-and-mortar location.

“We were looking for a way to move this cooking business out of our house,” she says. “But all of the variables when you are a pop-up are completely different.” She realized that her recipe had to stand up to extreme temperatures and all kinds of weather: “That took roughly 16 iterations of the brine and about eight iterations of the breading.”

The breading includes a spice blend inspired by the chicken curry her mother and aunties used to make while she was growing up—they each had their own distinctive blend. Fore combined the meaningful spices of her childhood in her own unique proportions. “Mine tends to be heavier on cumin, with a little bit of turmeric, black mustard seed, black pepper, curry leaves. I wanted to get all of those little nuances in there but in a way that it’s not overpowering,” she says.

She initially combined the spices every time she made the recipe, which wasn’t sustainable. “It was insane. And I was doing an event in Martha’s Vineyard, and there’s not a lot of well-stocked international grocery stores on Martha’s Vineyard. So I realized that I had to standardize it if I really wanted to take this pop-up on the road.”

Spicewalla Fried Chicken Spice
Sam Fore’s Signature Blend
When I’m cooking I have a tendency to make the entire street smell good.”

That process birthed her Tuk Tuk Fried Chicken Spice, which she recommends in the recipe, although she provides an alternative that leans on Madras curry, a blend of spices that includes turmeric, if you’re in a pinch.

Now she’s back in her hometown with a foolproof recipe for fried chicken that combines the flavors of Sri Lanka and Kentucky. The buttermilk she brines the chicken in is also commonly used in South Asia to tenderize. And when she was cooking at the Chow Chow Food and Culture Festival in Asheville during the 2019 taping of Somewhere South, she says, “the ladies in Appalachia that were making chow chow—they’re using turmeric, too.”

According to Fore, this kind of overlap “means that food doesn’t have to be as reductive. It opens up so many options. I would love to see fried chicken for all of the flavors. To have food as a translating vehicle I think leads to more acceptance overall.”

Get the Recipe: Tuk Tuk Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Chef Sam Fore’s fried chicken is topped with zesty curry leaf salt and turmeric
Chef Sam Fore’s fried chicken is topped with zesty curry leaf salt.
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