This is the sixth post in the Malaysia and Singapore! series. Other posts in this series include Lot 10 Hutong – Kuala Lumpur’s Most Famous Hawker Stalls Under One Roof, LaZat Malaysian Home Cooking, Otak, Otak Fish Dumplings in Banana Leaf, Little Penang Cafe + Visiting the Petronas Twin Towers, and Roti Jala – Malaysian Lacy Pancake.
I’m always fascinated by how geography and the movement of people influence food.
Nonya or Peranakan Cuisine fuses together Chinese ingredients with Malaysian spices and cooking techniques. It came about with the immigration of the Chinese to Malaysia in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. The Chinese brought with them the dishes they knew and incorporated Malaysia’s rich access to tropical ingredients, like kaffir limes, galangal, coconut milk, and belacan (fermented shrimp paste). What results is this incredible new, fusion cuisine that definitely resembles Chinese food but most certainly tastes like a distinct cuisine.
All of the dishes I made in my cooking class in Kuala Lumpur were Nonya dishes. Malaysian Nonya curry typically incorporates local ingredients such as shallots, belacan, coconut milk, and tamarind. A truly “made from scratch” version would also include a homemade, grind-it-yourself curry (which is what I did in Thailand!).
This version is much easier for a person in North America or Europe to reproduce. It uses a curry powder from a reputable brand that can be purchased in the U.S. The only more “exotic” ingredients are tamarind (which I’ve found in most Asian markets), and curry leaves, which may very well be available in an Indian grocery store (I haven’t checked). The recipe omits the strong smelling belacan (which is hard to find and a bit smelly to store!).
I haven’t tried making this again at home, but I can attest that the version we made in Malaysia was delicious.
We’ll start by prepping a few “pastes.” Make a pounded aromatics paste by pounding together shallots, garlic, and ginger with a mortar and pestle. Make a curry paste by mixing together curry powder and water.
Our instructors highly recommended Babas brand, which they said was their favorite in terms of its fragrant flavors. I was happy to find that this brand is pretty easy to find online. The owner of the cooking school, Ana, also said she sometimes makes her own curry and offered to share with us the recipe if we wanted. I haven’t taken her up on the offer, but if I am inspired, maybe one of these days I’ll try grinding my own!
Mise en Place: Chop up chicken thigh or breast into bite sized pieces, cut potatoes into small cubes (about 1/2 inch thick), and gather all the other ingredients.
Heat your skillet to medium heat (or low heat if you have a really temperature sensitive pan, like this one), and add curry leaves, cinnamon stick, star anise, cloves, and cardamon. Cook until fragrant.
Add the pounded aromatics paste to the skillet and saute for a few more minutes until the mixture is sticky and “goopy” but not caramelized.
Add curry paste and fry until the oil separates.
Ana told us that, according to traditional French cooking techniques, letting the oil separate out is one of the biggest sins in cooking. French-trained chefs coming to take her class were shocked to learn that Malaysian cooking technique requires this step. It went against everything they had learned. However, Malaysian cooking requires this step in order for the dish to come out right.
Add water, potatoes, tamarind juice, and salt. Let simmer. See how the separated oil has now risen to the top?
Once the potatoes are almost cooked, add chicken and coconut milk. Continue cooking until the chicken is thoroughly cooked.
You can serve this straight up with rice, or serve with roti jala, Malaysian lacy pancake.
NONYA MALAYSIAN CHICKEN CURRY
I would most definitely double or quadruple this recipe if you want to serve multiple people. I made the version shown below and ate the whole thing myself with the roti jala. 🙂
4 shallots, skin removed
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cm ginger, skin removed
Curry Powder Paste
2 tablespoons meat curry powder
2 tablespoons water
130g (4.6 ounces) chicken boneless thigh or breast meat, cut into bite sized pieces
2 tablespoons of oil, preferably a neutral higher heat oil like canola, grapeseed,
1 stalk curry leaves
2 cm (about 1/2 inch) stick of cinnamon stick
1 star anise
180 mL (6 ounces) water
30g (1 ounce) potatoes, cut into cubes
1 tsp tamarind juice
1/2 tsp salt
70 mL (2.4 ounces) coconut milk
1. Make “Pounded Aromatics” paste: pound together shallots, garlic, and ginger in a mortar and pestle. Set aside.
2. Mix together curry powder and water to make the Curry Powder Paste. Set aside.
3. Add oil to a skillet at medium heat and cook curry leaves, cinnamon stick, star anise, cloves, and cardamon until fragrant.
4. Add Pounded Aromatics to the skillet and saute for a few more minutes until the mixture is sticky and “goopy” but not caramelized.
5. Add Curry Paste and fry until the oil separates.
6. Add water, potatoes, tamarind juice, and salt. Let simmer.
7. Once the potatoes are almost cooked, add chicken and coconut milk.
8. Continue cooking until chicken is cooked.
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