This is my mother’s recipe and I personally like it because its so easy, anyone can make it. I have added my personal touches to it, here and there, but essentially it is my mother’s recipe.
I am really ~ no, phenominally ~ terrible at making curries. I only know how to do one. That is it … my entire curry repertoire. The thing with cooking curries the proper Malay or South Indian way is that you have to know your spice ratios. Traditional curries, to me, rank up there in the ‘Complicated Dish’ category along with fortified oxtail stew. It sounds easy enough but actually getting the layers of flavours just right can prove to be a bit of a challenge unless you cook it all the time.
Back where I come from we tend to take curries for granted because they exist in abundance. EVERYWHERE! A key trademark of the Kuala Lumpur dining experience is the existance of ‘Mamak’ stalls. These, usually hastily structured roadside stalls are predominantly run by members of the Indian-Muslim community, and their food is unique to Malaysia. While they have had humble beginnings, many have become successful businesses, and their tiny little stalls have now grown to encompass entire shop lots, complete with airconditioning and parking facilities out front. But the fare, be it at a roadside stall or a proper restaurant, is standard ~ you cannot call youself an authentic ’Mamak shop’ owner if you do not sell roti canai with curry and ‘teh tarik’ ~ which literally translates as “pulled tea”. Mamak stalls are very popular because their foods are freakishly cheap; RM 10 goes a long way.
The other source of awesome curry in Malaysia comes from the Malay-muslim community and their curries tend to be richer and creamier from the use of coconut milk and fragrant pandan leaves. My favourite of all curries is the ever popular ‘Kari Ayam Masak Lemak’ ~ which basically translates to Chicken Curry in Coconut Milk. This recipe varies from family to family; its like how an Italian family has their own personal version of a Bolognaise sauce that has been passed down from generation to generation.
My earliest memory of curry stems from my paternal grandparents, who are of Portugese-eurasian decent. I cannot remember a time where we would visit and not be served at least one curry dish at lunch. Preparation of these dishes always involved a lot of peeling, pounding and scraping work, and my sister and I would sometimes be employed to peel the onions and garlic. I didn’t mind peeling carrots and cucumbers, but I hated peeling the onions. That was me then, age 6. After a very tearful 30 mins of peeling, a paste then needed to be made which forms the basis of any curry really, commonly consisting of fresh chillies, ginger, garlic, onions and some curry powder blend. These were frequently pounded to a pulp in a stone mortar and pestle … but an electric blender works just fine. As a 6 yr old pounding these fresh ingredients really annoyed me coz bits of garlic kept jumping out and landing on the kitchen floor …. and also I found the stone pestle to be very heavy after 5 mins …. but my aunts and grandmother were insistant that a young Eurasian girl needs to know her way around the kitchen; training had to begin early! I hated it … I would much rather be watching cartoons on TV.
On top of the fresh aromatics, sometimes a curry spice blend was also necessary. Spice merchants made it easy on housewives by pre-mixing a selection of spices, i.e : ground corriander, cummin seeds, nutmeg, tumeric …etc, and packing them into neat, ready-for-the-pot packages. If you wanted to cook a fish curry there would be a fish blend, and if you fancied a beef or mutton curry there would be a meat blend. But I think these packages were a bit deceiving because despite the fact that they were pre-mixed you still needed to work out how much of it to add into your curry. Maybe I just didn’t bother paying attention during my “training”. I was never a huge fan of curries anyway. My family on the other hand will not go a week without a curry dish … or three.
Fast forward a dozen years later … after leaving home at 18, I found myself living in Singapore … where the majority of food was very much Chinese in origin. It didn’t take very long for my taste for hot and spicy dishes to diminish even further. Every year when I went home to my parents I would complain about the food being too spicy for me and my poor mother would be inclined to have a second, non-spicy dish on standby just for me (spoilt rotten!!). Even if she made curries she would drastically cut down the amount of chillies used. Bless her.
One day Mum served up this delicious creamy coconutty chicken curry and it was devine. I LOVED IT! It wasn’t super spicy, and it had a very zesty limey undertone to it. I had to have the recipe! When she gave it to me I blinked at the piece of paper and then looked up at her with a blank look.
“This is it??”
Where was the list of ingredients that needed to be peeled and chopped and sliced, pureed to a pulp and hammered in the dreaded mortar and pestle? The ingredients list could be counted on 10 fingers. Everything just gets thrown into one pot and simmered for 30 – 40 mins. The end. This is such a quick and easy recipe, it never fails and it is to me a glorious form of comfort food to have on chilly days accompanied by a plate of steaming white rice.
The secret tho, about making chicken curries, is that the best ones are cooked with chicken on the bone. None of that chicken breast fillet nonsense. In my opinion chicken fillets are to be used if you are making stir-fries and chicken parmagiana. They have absolutely no business being in a dish that requires gentle simmering for flavour development. If you use breast meat its only going to dry out and get stringy since it has no natural fats of its own.
The other benefit of using chicken pieces with the bones in is collagen. Collagen is a type of fibrous protein that is naturally occuring in all mammals. At a certain temperature bone and connective tissue in the cartilages will start to breakdown and what you get is gelatine. As the gelatine oozes out, it causes the gravy to thicken naturally and it provides a certain velvety dimension to the dish, which is why slow cooked dishes heated at low temperatures are so yummy. Think braised lamb shanks …. mmmm!! So please, take my advice and keep the bones in ~ chicken wings, drumsticks, chicken thighs ~ take your pick.
Chicken Curry in Coconut Milk.
- 800 g chicken pieces (bone in)
- 3 tbsp veggie oil
- 1 large red onion
- 3 fresh red chillies
- 4 cm fresh ginger root
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/2 tsp ground tumeric
- 2 tbsp Thai curry paste from a jar
- 2 lemongrass sticks, bruised
- 250 mls coconut milk
- 1/2 chicken stock cube
- 5 kaffir lime leaves
- Handful of fresh corriander leaves to finish off
1. Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper, then leave aside. Sometimes I tend to add some paprika to the mix for added flavour on the chicken skin. Totally optional of course. Trim excess fat off the chicken, if there is any.
2. Place chillies, ginger (fibours outer skin removed), garlic and onion in a food processor. Blitz to a course consistancy. Then sautee in a pan with the oil for about 3 mins along with the Thai curry paste from a jar. Do not burn the spices, so control the heat.
3. When fragrant, add in the chicken pieces to sear them, skin side down, for about 4 mins.
4. Now simply throw in all the other ingredients (except corriander leaves) and bring it up to the boil, cover then let simmer on low for about 30 – 40 mins. The chicken will cook gently and by the time you take them out of the pot the meat will be juicy and oh-so tender. Don’t forget to adjust seasonings to suit your taste. Salt and pepper. The chicken will release its own juices during the cooking process, but if the curry is drying up too quickly then add half a cup of water to the mix.
5. Just before serving sprinkle with a good handful of fresh corriander leaves. Serve with basmati rice or flat breads. A side of cucumber and red onion salad wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
In this article I have made ‘roti jala’ (sovoury lace crêpes) to accompany the chicken curry. Mine are not very pretty because I didn’t have the proper tool for making them. I improvised by drizzling the batter onto a hot griddle using an icing tube. When I find the proper tool for it one day I will make a full write up on how to make roti jala. But for now, these will have to do.
But if you are hungry, I strongly suggest you serve this with rice for a hearty meal. If you are not a fan of corriander leaves (they can be quite pungent and pack a punch) , simply swap them for Thai sweet basil instead.
So there you have it folks … the one and only curry I know how to make, and make well. I will be asking Mum and my aunt for other recipes and hopefully I will be writing about traditional Eurasian curries before long. I already have a few on my mind … I just don’t know what they are called. LOL!
Until next time …
~ ENJOY! ~