The überkind of Nyonya cuisine, Kari Kapitan is the prefect confluence of traditional Malay and Chinese flavours. My version of this curry is a loose adaptation of that of the reigning queen of Nyonya food, Pearly Kee. Nyonya cuisine is the epitome of what makes Malaysian food great; inclusivity, and Pearly is a true vanguard of this culinary heritage. The result of a marriage of Malay and Chinese ingredients and flavours, Nyonya style cooking is unique to Malaysia and is, perhaps, one of the most underrated cuisines in the World.
A Malaysian take on a traditional Indian Chicken Curry, Kari Kapitan is the result of a thorough Nyonya makeover. Along with the classic additions of lemongrass, lime and galangal, the chief Nyonya element is belachan. Ubiquitous to Malaysian cuisine, belachan is a fermented shrimp paste and is one of the hallmarks of Nyonya cooking. Whilst best described as ‘pungent’, belachan mellows when added to a curry, imparting a depth of flavour to the finished dish like no other.
One of my happiest childhood memories is going on a family outing to the local waterfalls; virtually the entire Clan was there – grandparents, aunts, uncles and a full gaggle of cousins. After hours of slip-sliding through the falls, it was finally lunchtime! As we gathered for our picnic, my grandmother presented us with a massive white Tupperware, filled to the brim with leftover Kari Kapitan. Armed with anticipation and slices of fresh white bread, we all tucked in; what bliss! Perched on those boulders, surrounded by my army of screaming cousins, with the cool waters rushing between my toes and my fingers stained yellow from the Kari Kapitan; it was the perfect childhood memory, matched with the perfect meal.
Universally, all curries benefit from a day of rest before being served, but this is especially true of Kari Kapitan. Whilst still delicious when eaten on the day of cooking, a bit of patience reaps its own reward. Such is its plethora of flavours, Kari Kapitan needs time to find its balance, to develop and mature. As a result, Kari Kapitan makes for amazing leftovers…and memories.
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Kari Kaptian (Chicken Curry Kaptian): Serves 4
- 1 chicken, jointed into 8 pieces
- 4 tbsp. vegetable oil
- 1 tin of coconut milk
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. sugar
- Juice of 2 limes
- 3-6 dried chillis,seeded and soaked in hot water for 20 minutes
- 2 red chillis, seeded and roughly chopped
- 100g shallots, red onions or white onions, roughly chopped
- 4 lemongrass stalks, finely sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 50g peeled fresh ginger, roughly chopped
- 1 tsp. belachan (shrimp paste)
- 1 tsp. five-spice powder
- 10 blanched almonds
- 1 tsp. ground turmeric
- Place all the spice paste ingredients (except the ground turmeric) into a mini food processor with a splash of water and grind into a smooth paste.
- Decant the paste into a separate bowl and add the turmeric, mix well
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan and add the spice paste
- Fry the paste until fragrant, stirring constantly to prevent it from burning
- Add the chicken pieces and coat in the spice paste. Continue frying until the chicken turns white
- Add the coconut milk, turn up heat and bring to a boil
- Reduce to a medium heat and simmer (uncovered) for 20 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and tender. The oil will separate from the sauce, don’t freak out – that is meant to happen!
- Add the salt, sugar and lime juice
- Simmer for a couple more minutes
- If eating the next day, allow to cool completely (uncovered) and then store in the fridge overnight
- Before reheating, remove the solidified oil from the curry and reheat gently
Eat with: rice, bread or roti jala