” Is it simmering? Sizzling? Browning? Steaming? Good cooks heed these signs – the landmarks that will guide you to deliciousness, rather than precise temperatures on oven dials and specific cooking times.”
Samin Nosrat for The Guardian
This could not be more true than for cooking a curry.The way your ingredients react to heat is more important than relying on specific cooking temperatures or times. For instance, most curries start off with the sautéing of whole spices in hot oil but many recipes do not tell why that is so – to release the essential oils in the botanical spices and to flavour the oil which would become the flavours that would permeate every part of the dish. When you fry the spices you’ll need to first take a sniff to check for their freshness and aroma and then, this would be the smell that should emanate from when they sizzle in hot oil. Any other smell should indicate to the cook that its gone off. These landmarks and signs that Nosrat writes about are, in my opinion, more important than the recipe itself ; the feel and smell of ingredients and their interaction with heat are much better signposts to making a good curry , or any dish for that matter, than a recipe.
What are the signs / things to note for making this curry, you ask?
Unlike many meat curries, this one, though flavoured by chicken, isn’t spice heavy. Like many Southeast Asian curries, it is mildly spiced and complemented by the floral notes in coconut milk. It is creamy at first and you’ll be able to pick up the pungent and earthy notes of cinnamon and cumin , citrus floral flavours of fresh red chillies, coriander and lemongrass and at the end, the musky spice of dried chillies. The pungent, liquorice notes of cloves should not overwhelm your tastebuds. Because the fresh herbs, spices, shallots and garlic are ground, mixed into a paste and cooked together, this curry is not as complex in flavour (hence easier to recreate) as those where aromatics are separately cooked in stages. Nonetheless, it’s really, REALLY tasty.
At the start, make sure you’re not stingy with the oil as this makes it easier to cook the spice paste without burning it. In my first few attempts and the ones shown in the photographs here, I was careful with the amount of oil I started with. But, a few days ago, I tried cooking with slightly more oil – enough to cover the base of my pot, and that yielded a much better result, as pictured below. Better colour, flavour and consistency.
When cooking the spice, cook over low heat and patiently sauté till you can see it darken a shade, the aroma smells like a chicken curry rather than individual spices and the red oil starts separating from the paste. So make sure your kitchen lights are switched on because if you don’t cook the paste thoroughly the entire curry is ruined! Also, as you’re cooking the spice paste, keep stirring constantly to avoid getting too much brown bits at the bottom of your pot. As I mentioned earlier – not a complex curry. If it’s your first time cooking a spice paste, taste it before you cook it and when you think it is properly cooked through. Before it’s cooked it’ll taste less harmonious and each spice will be more pungent. After it’s thoroughly cooked, the spices would have mellowed and it’ll taste a lot like how a chicken curry would taste like.
Also, because the curry also does not rely on a lot of ingredients, you’ve to ensure that all of them are fresh and at their best, especially the coconut milk. So no stale, decades old spices from the back of your cupboards! In all of South and Southeast Asia, cooks will swear by fresh coconut milk extracts. However, good quality canned coconut milk does come quite close to freshly squeezed ones, if access to some is an issue. To compensate for some of the flavour loss (because freshly squeezed coconut milk is a thing of beauty!), I strongly recommend toasting whole spices and grinding them instead of using ready ground ones if you’re making it for a special occasion. It is worth the effort.
Finally, plain rice, bread or roti prata or roti jala (recipe coming soon!) that soak up the sauce are the perfect accompaniments to this thing of beauty. It’s no wonder that it’s on the menu at every ‘Malaysian’ restaurant I’ve been to overseas. Malaysian Chicken Curry, Nonya Chicken Curry… etc. All the same. But I’ll bet you everything in my kitchen that if you make this at home, yours will taste a MILLION times more delicious than the ones found in those ‘Malaysian’ joints because yours does not come from a packet!
Leftovers should be cooled completely and refrigerated for no more than 2 days. The curry taste better the next day so it’s a perfect dish to be made in advance.
Malaysian Nonya Chicken Curry (Kari Kay)
- 4 fresh red chillies, deseeded, roughly chopped
- 2 lemongrass stalks, white part, finely sliced
- 80g shallots, roughly chopped
- 3-4 large garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- about 1/2 cup water
- 2 tablespoon chilli powder
- 2 tablespoon coriander powder
- 2 tablespoon cumin powder
- 1 and 1/2 tablespoon fennel powder
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1/4 teaspoon chilli powder (for chicken)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 kg – 1.2 kg whole chicken, cut into parts, fatty bits removed
- 1/4 cup or so, cooking oil (I like cold-pressed coconut oil)
- 2 inch cinnamon stick
- 1 whole star anise
- 4 cloves
- curry leaves from 1 sprig (optional, not traditional but I like it)
- 4-5 baby potatoes, cut into halves
- 40 ml coconut milk, mixed with 540 ml (2 cups) water
- 140-150 ml coconut milk
- extra coconut milk/coconut cream
- more salt, to taste
- Grind fresh chillies, lemongrass, shallots and garlic to a fine paste with about 1/2 cup water . Add chilli, coriander, cumin, fennel powders and mix thoroughly. Set aside.
- Marinate chicken pieces turmeric, chilli powders and salt. Set aside.
- In a large , heavy based pot (I use my dutch oven), add cooking oil and sauté for a few seconds cinnamon, star anise, cloves and curry leaves until aromatic.
- Immediately add ground spice mixture and cook over medium- low heat until red oil separates. (Read descriptions in blog post). Keep stirring until thoroughly cooked.
- Reduce heat to lowest and add marinated chicken into pot. Coat all chicken pieces with spice paste.
- Add coconut milk-water mixture and potatoes and bring to a rolling boil.
- Then, reduce flame to medium and cook uncovered until chicken and potatoes are fully cooked through and the sauce has reduced by about half, about 20 minutes. If sauce hasn’t reduced when chicken is done, remove chicken pieces with a slotted spoon and reduce gravy and then add back the chicken.
- Add remaining coconut milk and salt to taste and boil for a minute. Just before serving, drizzle a little coconut milk/ coconut cream, mix and serve with bread, rice or roti jala.
If you have any queries/ hesitations about how to make your curries, you can leave a comment here, on my instagram @cupcakesncurries or email me : cupcakesncurries at gmail dot com.