Malaysians can’t sit still, especially in the kitchen. Whatever dishes find their way in, will inevitably be fiddled with and eventually improved on. When chicken curry arrived many centuries ago, right into the curious hands of aunties like my mom, therein came the magical outcome of the now famous Nyonya chicken curry.
Nyonya chicken curry is a richer, drier, thicker version of the standard chicken curry, and is immediately recognisable by its distinct Southeast Asian flavour from local spices and herbs; the core ingredients of most Nyonya chicken curry recipes. Each household, though, has their own family recipe with a variety of additional ingredients, as well as their own marinating and cooking process. For example, some choose to marinate the chicken with turmeric overnight, while others marinate it with lime juice, salt, and grated coconut that has been toasted brown.
When it comes to making curries these days, most of us are guilty of taking the easy way out by cooking with an instant curry paste, which is both convenient and often quite tasty. However, it wouldn’t come as close to the authentic taste of a curry dish with a paste made from scratch and with fresh ingredients.
No instant curry mix would rival the fresh and exotic aroma of homemade spice paste of turmeric, fennel, cumin, coriander seeds, and other spices. So, it seems clear that if you want the best chicken curry, be prepared to spend some time in your kitchen.
Chicken curry is made with bone-in chicken traditionally and curry leaves are used to infuse the chicken curry with the intense fragrance of the curry leaves. Often served with rice or bread, it also goes exceptionally well when paired with either roti jala or nasi kunyit (turmeric rice).
1 whole chicken (remove head, neck, feet and chopped into pieces)
200g potatoes (peeled and cut into wedges)
200ml thick coconut milk or to taste (use more if you like it “lemak”)
1 handful of curry leaves (use only the leaves)
1 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
5 tbsp oil
1 ½ cup water
Ingredients for the paste:
3 cloves garlic
12 dried chili (soaked and remove seeds)
15g coriander seeds
20g shrimp paste (toasted)
1 lemongrass (white part only)
1 tbsp salt (seasoning)
1 tsp sugar (seasoning)
Preparing and cooking the paste:
To make spice paste, soak chillies in boiling water for 30 minutes or until softened, then drain. Meanwhile, wrap shrimp paste in foil and cook in a small, heavy-based frying pan over medium-low heat for 4 minutes each side or until fragrant (open foil to check). Place coriander, fennel and cumin seeds in a small, heavy-based frying pan over medium-low heat and toast, shaking pan occasionally, for 4 minutes or until fragrant. Transfer to a food processor and process to a coarse powder. Add soaked chillies, shrimp paste and remaining ingredients, and process to a smooth paste.
How to cook the Nyonya chicken curry dish:
Using a large, sharp knife, cut the whole chicken and its parts in half between the joint, then trim any excess skin and fat. Heat oil in a large wok or saucepan over medium heat. Add the spice paste and whole spices, and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or until fragrant.
Heat up your wok over medium heat, pour in 5 tbsp oil, sauté cinnamon stick, star anise and cloves, stir-fry over low heat for 2-3 minutes, add in spice paste and stir-fry until fragrant. Add chicken, potatoes, curry leaves and fry well. Add in water, cover the pot, braise over low heat until chicken and potatoes are cooked well. If you’d like a thinner sauce, simply increase water from ½ to 1 full cup.
Add the thick coconut milk, salt and sugar. Continue to simmer in low heat for 20-30 minutes or until the chicken becomes tender.
Remove and serve with white rice, bread, nasi kunyit, or roti jala.