As a child I wasn’t a great fan of spicy food, in fact I loathed it. Having grown up in Malaysia this presented a very real challenge, especially for my grandmother. The undisputed Queen of the Kitchen, my amah was always keen to entice me over to the spicy-side and did so through a protracted period of gentle assimilation, incrementally introducing my tender palette to the delights of one of my family’s greatest obsessions: chili.
One of my earliest memories of eating around the family dining table was watching as the Ghani men ate raw chili padi dipped in hecko sauce (it was always the men, the woman seemed to have more sense). Egged on by brotherly bravado, my father and uncles would pop these searing missiles into their mouths, chewing and grunting in apparent pleasure, all the while wiping their brows with handkerchiefs damp with sweat. This would go on until the large plate of chillies was laid bare and their stomachs churning in revolt. Apparently, this is what my amah was coaching me for, an adulthood of chili padi and agonising trips to the loo! It was a terrifying prospect to one so young, but thankfully she started me off easy and that is how Ayam Masak Merah become a childhood favourite of mine!
Despite it’s rather alarming name, Masak Merah (red cooked) is actually one of the milder dishes amongst the pantheon of Malaysian curries and was the perfect vehicle to get me started on, what to be, my love affair with all things spicy. Unlike most other Malaysian curries where the use of coconut milk is ubiquitous, Masak Merah is tomato-based, hence the name. Reliant on tomato rather than chili for its colour, the dish is fiery red but without the burn associated with its devilish hue. As it is still ostensibly a curry the use of chili is a prerequisite, but the quantities of such can be reduced without losing the appeal of the dish, making it an excellent option for those adverse to too much heat, especially children.
Quick to make and utterly delicious (even when eaten on the day it’s cooked), my fondness of Masak Merah followed me long after I have graduated to spicer dishes. When I moved to the UK it was one of my favourite tastes-of-home, and whenever I came back from a holiday in Malaysia my bag was always loaded with packets of Brahim’s Masak Merah sauce! Like most expat Malaysians I never bothered to learn how to make our favourite dishes, especially when the quality of readymade sauces were so widely available. Sadly, upon moving to Cape Town, my trips back to Malaysia diminished and with it my supply of those handy packs of Brahim’s. As is the case, there was only one thing for it: I would have to learn to cook Masak Merah myself!
Finding a decent recipe for this beloved childhood dish was surprisingly hard and almost all of my previous attempts fell woefully short of expectations. Cans of tomato soup seemed to dominate the recipes, but as far as I could recall I’d never seen a tin of Heinz in amah’s cupboard, much less in her Masak Merah! Disappointed, I did what every sensible Malaysian does and turned to the family WhatsApp group. Of course, they didn’t disappoint, and the recommendations came flooding in almost immediately. Initially most of these seemed similar to the recipes I’d already tried, but then came the motherload, a message for my aunt, Rohani Jelani. One of Malaysia’s preeminent food writers and cooks, hers was the Masak Merah I had been hoping for and it didn’t disappoint! Simple, both in method and ingredients, this was Malaysian home cooking at its best, and with just a few tweaks was the closest I’ve come to finding a recipe that matches my recollection and expectations. Amah would be proud.
Note: Though not traditional, you could also use jointed chicken wings. Simply dust the wings in seasoned flour, dip in egg and then coat in flour. Deep-fry before adding to the sauce. Reduce to its nice and sticky. Delicious!
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Ingredients: Serves 4
- 4 deboned chicken breast or 6 thighs, with skin on
- Ground turmeric
- 2 to 5 dried chillies
- 2 fresh red chillies, chopped
- 3 candlenuts (buah keras), roughly chopped (substitute with macadamia nuts)
- 1 large red onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 cm ginger, chopped
- 1/4 cup oil
- 1 brown onion, thickly sliced
- 2 tsp tomato paste
- 2 tbsp tomato ketchup
- 2 tbsp chilli sauce (I use sriracha)
- 1 tsp white vinegar
- 2 tsp sugar
- Salt to taste
- Soak the dried chillies in hot water for 20 minutes.
- Rinse chicken and pat dry with kitchen paper. Cut the chicken into 3 pieces, if using breast meat cover with clingwrap and bash lightly with a mallet (if using thighs you can skip the beating). Rub the chicken with salt and turmeric, set aside for 10 minutes.
- Once softened, deseed the dried chillies and chop.
- Grind the dried and fresh chillies, along with the nuts, onion, garlic and ginger in a food processor, adding a slash of water to help the process along.
- Heat oil in a wok over moderate heat. Working with a few pieces at a time, seal chicken until browned (about 3 minutes per side) – they don’t have to cook completely through to the inside. Transfer chicken to a plate.
- Pour out all but 4 Tbsp of oil in the wok that was used to fry the chicken. Fry the onion rings for 1 – 2 minutes, until just beginning to brown (but they should still have a slight crunch). Carefully remove onion, leaving as much of the oil in the pan as possible.
- In the same pan, fry the ground paste over low heat until fragrant and oil separates. Add the remaining ingredients (tomato paste, tomato ketchup, chilli sauce, vinegar, sugar and salt) and cook 3 – 4 minutes. Add 1 cup water, bring mixture to the boil and return chicken to the wok.
- Simmer for 10 minutes until the sauce thickens and begins to coats the meat.
- Lastly add the onion rings, cook for another minute and take pan off the heat.