chicken

Ayam Masak Lemak Putih

A common perception of Malay food is that it is an invariably spicy affair; for the most part it’s absolutely true – we do love our chilies and we certainly aren’t shy about using them in eye-watering quantities.

Nevertheless, Malay food is a diverse cuisine and there are, in fact, a number of delectable dishes for those of us looking for something a little less “pedas” (hot). Despite bearing all the hallmarks of a classic Malaysian curry, Ayam Masak Lemak Putih (Coconut Milk White Cooked Chicken) is, in fact, perhaps one of our mildest offerings, and is a great option for introducing your non-Malaysian friends to our incredible flavours. Of course, mild in no way means meek, and this wonderful dish is every bit as alluring as beef rendang and kari kapitan.

Brimming with nuance, on the face of it Ayam Masak Lemak Putih resembles a traditional Indian korma. Both mild and comforting, despite their inherent similarities what really sets these dishes apart is their flavour. Unlike its more famous doppelgänger, instead of cream or yogurt, Ayam Masak Lemak Putih is braised in a fragrant brew of coconut milk and classic South East Asian aromatics such as galangal, lemongrass and lime.

Another distinction between the two is the consistency of the sauce.

Unlike a korma, which is typically thick, Ayam Masak Lemak Putih‘s rich and moreish sauce is both looser and lighter; making it perfect for either drowning your rice in it, or as I love to do, moping up it with good white bread or, better still, some flaky roti canai.

Admittedly, despite its name my version of Ayam Masak Lemak Putih tends to err on the side of gray as apposed to actually being white; please don’t get hung up on the colour, or its name – especially when it’s something that tastes as good as this! The “white” is a product of using a copious amount of lemak (coconut milk) in the sauce, but outside Malaysia this can be an extravagance too far, and frankly it’s unnecessary. Of course if you do happen to have a glut of coconut milk available, by all means increse the quantity for a truly authentic look.

Note: Like most Malaysian curries, this dish will benefit from a rest before serving. As there is little or no chili in the sauce, a couple of hours resting time should suffice, though overnight is, of course, always ideal.

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Marmite Chicken 妈蜜鸡

I’m not sure why, but recently I’ve been in a distinctly Marmite state of mind.

Perhaps its the riots and lockdowns talking, but I think we can all agree these are dark and polarising times. Indeed, seen from that perspective 2020 is turning out to be the most “Marmite” year of them all! Dividing more than it unites, this dark concoction of Brewer’s Yeast claims no middle-ground; making it the pantry poster-child of this “love it or loathe it” culture we seem to find ourselves living in. Alas I adore Marmite, but as a Year, it can go straight to the back of the shelf…but not before I drone on about one of my favourite recipes: Marmite Chicken!

Arguably one of the last ingredients you’d associate with Asian food, Marmite Chicken is a surprisingly popular dish in the Chinese restaurants of Malaysia. Robust, and un-apologetically marmity, this dish isn’t for the fainthearted – but then again neither is Marmite! Much like Horlicks Chicken, there is naturally an element of the novel in play here, but don’t let that put you off. Of course it goes without saying that non-Marmite lovers beware: this may not be the dish for you!

This surprisingly easy dish is, in fact, a triumph of crispy deep-fried chicken morsels, contrasted with, and smothered in, an addictive umami sauce. Balancing both sweet and salty, this certainly isn’t the dubious fusion hash you’d expect it to be. As with similar dishes, Marmite chicken is best plated on  some fresh lettuce, sliced cucumber, and even tomato – anything that will absorb that wonderfully sticky sauce!

Serve with: plain rice, mapo tofu and something “neutral” like Sichuan Cabbage, or egg foo young,

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Ayam Lada Hitam (Malaysian Pepper Chicken)

For better or worse, sometimes you can smell your dinner a mile away, as is certainly the case with Ayam Lada Hitam (Malaysian Pepper Chicken)!

Fragrant, fiery, and flavoured to the extreme, Asian pepper dishes are often divisive; with most of us either loving or loathing it. Deployed sparingly as a form of seasoning, the use of pepper in Western cooking is actually quite limited – perhaps a relic of the days when the spice was highly valued, and its use judicious. At its abundant source, however, pepper can be added with abandon and is often used to add heat to a dish, instead of just being a seasoning to enhance flavour. Unlike the heat produced from chilies, pepper’s burn is slower, deeper, and more aromatic – adding a pervasive undertone to a dish that chili does not. Personally I’m an avid fan, but I have to admit that when it comes to pepper, you can easily have too much of a good thing. Like most things in life and cooking, balance is key and in this recipe that is somewhere in-between the toasted spiced oil and the heat of the pepper.

Adapted from an early recipe from my Aunt, the acclaimed food writer Rohani Jelani, Ayam Lada Hitam is old-school Malaysian cooking at its best. Packed with flavour and simple to make, this dish doesn’t require any specialist Asian ingredients – making it a great option for those of us with limited access to such.

Ayam Lada Hitam remains a home-cooking classic, albeit one that is rarely mentioned in the culinary lexicon of modern Malaysia. It’s a shame really, as this spicy dish is worthy of its place at the table, and easily holds its own against stalwarts such as beef rendang and curry kapitan. Best served alongside a mild vegetable dish like sayur lodeh, or something sweet like kari nenas (Pineapple Curry), Ayam Lada Hitam makes a great addition to any Malaysian meal.

A word of warning though: come makan-time, just be prepared for a knock at the door, as your whole neighbourhood will have smelt what’s cooking for dinner!

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Lai Yao Kei 奶油鸡 (Malaysian Butter Chicken)

Butter Chicken, but not as most of us know it!

Now obviously I’m a tad biased, but when I fancy some Butter Chicken it typically isn’t the Indian variety I’m hankering after. More often than not, what I’m really craving is actually something altogether different.

Indeed, Lai Yao Kei (Malaysian Butter Chicken) is about a million miles away from what most of us imagine when we think of Butter Chicken. In fact, I’d go so far as arguing this wonderful Malaysian dish, is in a league of its own. Unlike the oft mangled classic that is Indian butter chicken, the Malaysian version is an altogether different beast.

Unlike the Indian alliteration, there are no overnight or penetrative marinates here. Instead, flavoured morsels of chicken are ready for the deep-fryer in less than an hour, and smothered in a super quick creamy aromatic sauce. Infused with the unmistakable aroma of fresh curry leaves, and spiked with the heat from fresh chilies, the sauce itself is actually very simple and comes together in minutes.

Though you’d think the butter would be the star of the show here, it is actually the evaporated milk that steals the limelight. Admittedly, evaporated milk is probably the last ingredient you’d expect to find in a savoury sauce, but trust me, it works a treat and will blow your mind!

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Dak-dori-tang 닭도리탕 (Korean Spicy Chicken Stew)

North or South, Koreans share a universal love for spicy food, and it doesn’t get much more fiery than this hearty stew.

Dak-dori-tang (spicy chicken stew), also known as dak-bokkeum-tang, is a perennial Korean classic, and though the recipe varies across the peninsula it is almost always both fierce and comforting at the same time. Traditionally made from a whole chopped chicken, onions and potato, the recipe can be adapted to your tastes and needs. Though skinned chicken breasts can be used, I personally prefer using boned thighs – they hold up better against the robust sauce, and don’t tend to dry out during the intense cooking process. With regards to the vegetables, again the recipe can be modified to include almost anything you have to hand: carrots, daikon, leeks – all make excellent additions.

Though classified as a stew, dak-dori-tang is actually more of a braise as the liquid is reduced over a high heat, leaving you with a thick and spicy sauce. As the cooking time is quite short (about 30 minutes), it is best to par-cook the harder vegetables before adding them to the sauce. If you opt to use bone-in chicken, it is important to use equal size pieces, making sure that they are well-browned beforehand and you adjust the cooking time accordingly.

Dak-dori-tang 닭도리탕 (Korean Spicy Chicken Stew)

Dak-dori-tang made with chicken pieces on the bone.

Although spicy by nature, dak-dori-tang is no less delicious when made slightly milder, if preferred. Despite their volcanic appearance, Korean chili powder (gochutgaru) and chili paste (gochujang) are actually not anywhere near as hot as they look, making it is quite easy to adjust the dish’s heat without being at the expense of flavour. They actually add a wonderful earthy, smoky undertone, and are definitely worth a trip down to your nearest Asian Supermarket. Though generally quite expensive, both have a very long shelf-life and if you plan to make Korean food they are essential Pantry items. Keep an eye out for Chinese brands as these are often considerably cheaper than their Korean counterparts, with no discernible difference in taste. On that note, a word of warning: under no circumstances should you substitute gochutgaru with any other type of chili powder. Anything else will be way too hot and will undoubtedly be the ruin of your dinner.

Disaster awaits all who are even tempted to try…

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Serve with: freshly cooked white rice along with a select of banchan (Korean side dishes) – I suggest some simple stir-fried cabbage and, of course, a generous portion of mak kimchi!

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Inche Kabin (Nyonya Fried Chicken)

Inche Kabin (Nyonya Fried Chicken)

A delectable Nyonya classic, Inche Kabin will have you licking your fingers and asking for more! Deep fried chicken morsels, marinated in a thick coconut and spiced rub, Inche Kabin is bursting with flavour and always goes down a treat.

Though not personally au fait with the origins of Inche Kabin, the reigning queen of Nyonya Cuisine Pearly Kee, refers to the dish as lipstick chicken and speaks to its importance in Nyonya culture. Often served when presenting debutantes to the society, these bite-sized pieces of chicken were the perfect option to keep the young ladies feed, allowing them to maintain their poise and dignity whilst nibbling on tasty snacks. After all, heaven forbid your future wife be seen chewing in public! Oh how the world has changed…And as to why it’s also known as lipstick chicken? I’m still not sure. It may well be poetic license, but I can only surmise that the residue of oil from the deep fried chicken upon the lips has something to do with it. I guess glossy lips have always been in vogue, even if its just a bit of grease from too much Inche Kabin!

As with all deep fried chicken, the key to a good Inche Kabin is, rather unsurprisingly, the frying. Three times seems to do the trick, resulting in a crispy crust of spices. Traditionally chopped up chicken legs are the cut of choice, but I also like to use chicken wings for the recipe. Though obviously not as meaty as the leg, the wings are nonetheless delicious and not prone to drying out. Either would work, its really up to you.

Another key component to the dish is the dipping sauce. Never served without it, the simple piquant sauce adds just enough ‘zing’ to cut through the spice crust, making the Inche Kabin even more irresistible!

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Ayam Masak Merah (Malaysian Red Cooked Chicken)

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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Sate Ayam (Chicken Satay)

Sate Ayam (Chicken Satay)

A perennial childhood favourite of mine, sate is a true South East Asian classic.

Perhaps the ultimate skewered meat treat, sate is often considered more of a snack than an actual meal in itself and is typically ordered as a side dish or “starter”. Sate is also a popular option for young children as the meat is sweet and irresistibly flavoured, without being too spicy – great for fussy eaters!

Whilst beef and chicken are by far the most popular varieties of sate, the use of mutton and goat meat is not entirely uncommon. Personally, I’ve always preferred chicken sate over beef, as it seems to fare better over the hot coals and the inherent blandness of chicken seems to marry better with the flavours of the marinade. Also at least you know what you are getting with chicken (for the most part anyway). The daging (i.e. meat) version of sate is, by definition, a tad ambiguous and there have just been too many scandals where meat of a dubious nature has been passed off as beef.  Trust me, stick to the chicken lest you are partial to the odd bit of horse meat.

At any rate, it turns out that making a decent stick of chicken sate at home is actually pretty damn hard! It isn’t that the recipe itself is particularly complicated or that the main ingredients are impossible to source, the problem lies in recreating the way the sate is actually cooked. Expertly grilled over searing hot coals on a specially designed oblong barbecue and basted with a brush made of lemongrass, the real deal is nothing short of chargrilled-perfection!

After many attempts at recreating the optimal cooking environment for sate, I must confess that I still haven’t got it quite right. Alas sometimes you just need to say “c‘est la vie” and except that perfection isn’t always an option when recreating your favourite dishes. Luckily, however, sate doesn’t have to be perfect to still be pretty damn amazing and totally worth making!

So here are a few tips on making the near-perfect sate:

Firstly, soak your bamboo sticks overnight otherwise they will burn and break off. Make sure the sticks are completely submerged in the water, I use a tall bottle with a stopper to soak mine in.

Secondly, marinate your meat overnight in the fridge – your sate will be all the better for your patience.

Finally, make a basting brush out of the outer skins of the lemongrass; it may seem a tad over-involved to go to such extremes, but it’s worth it.  To make the brush, simply shred the reserved lemongrass lengthwise and then tie at the top with some kitchen string. Give the “brush” a very light bash with a meat mallet just before using.

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Sate Ayam (Chicken Satay) Click here for the recipe

Thai Coconut & Lime Marinated Chicken

Coconut & Lime Marinated Chicken

Marinating is truly one of the greatest forms of culinary alchemy.

Like turning lead into gold, a good marinade can be equally as magical, morphing even the most mundane into something utterly delicious in a matter of hours. However, perhaps the best part about marinating is the transformative affect it can have on cooks, having the ability to turn novice kitchen dabblers into proficient cooks overnight!

A fool-proof way of jazzing up a couple of tiresome skinless chicken breasts, this Thai inspired marinade is both quick to make and requires only a few basic pantry ingredients. However, as easy as this recipe is, the marinade does require one thing and that’s enough time to work its magic. Personally I would leave the chicken to bathe in the marinate overnight, as this will give the meat fibres enough time to break down sufficiently and for the flavours to penetrate right through the chicken. If you really are rushed for time then a few of hours will suffice, but it will be to the detriment of the final result.

While far from authentically Thai, the coconut and lime marinade does impart a taste of the Orient whilst still being mild enough to appeal to most tastes, making a good mid-week family meal or something slightly different to serve at a braai/BBQ. Cooked, cooled and then thinly sliced, this chicken also makes for a wonderful sandwich-filler or salad-topper. However, my favourite way of serving it is with a massive pile of stir-fried julienned vegetables, making this the perfect Banting/LCHF dinner option.

This marinade’s versatility isn’t, however, limited to the ways in which it can be served, as the marinade can also be used on just about anything. Whilst I’ve used skinless chicken breasts for this recipe, the marinade would work just as well with any other chicken pieces, pork or fish. If you are going to try it with fish though, I would recommend using a firm white fleshed fish and restrict the marinating time to no more than an hour.

Click here for the recipe

Makhani Murgh (Butter Chicken)

Makhani Murgh (Butter Chicken)

The chances are, this recipe is nothing like the butter chicken you’ve ordered countless times from your local Indian takeaway. I too have ordered it more times than I care to admit, so I know what passes for butter chicken these days and most of it is pretty dismal. So much so, I have actually stopped ordering it altogether, for fear it would put me off Indian food completely.

As you might have gathered, I’m somewhat disillusioned about the state of butter chicken these days – especially when I consider what a wonderful dish it truly is! Unfortunately, this venerable dish has largely been reduced to being the poster-child for unimaginative and pedestrian Indian fare. When made well, however, butter chicken undoubtedly deserves its place amongst the great Indian classics. Rich, decadent and wonderfully spiced, this dish is a real winner and should feature in any Indian feast.

As tasty as it is, the real appeal of butter chicken is how easy it is to make! Primarily cooked in the oven, the dish frees up valuable stove space – a godsend when you’re trying to juggle up to six dishes on a 4 plate hob! Like most curries, butter chicken can also be made in advance and gently reheated before serving. In the case of butter chicken though, it should be placed under a grill to be heated through and lightly browned, rather than on a hob.

Note: Please do not ever be tempted to make butter chicken with anything other than chicken thighs, especially not breast meat, which will come out completely dry and taste terrible.

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