I have a tendency of preparing a chicken supper on Sundays. Sometimes it’s a roast chicken but last weekend, I hankered for a curry that we ate in Penang, Malaysia earlier this year. It was a Sunday when we wandered into a locals only spot for a lunch of chicken curry and roti (flatbread). The male Muslim cooks were hospitable and kind; they took pride in their craft. Their curry was well spiced but light on the palate, which meant it was perfect for the slightly greasy flatbread to soak up. The meal lingered in our minds long after we left Penang.
We got satisfaction a few weeks later with this chicken curry recipe published in a Saveur article by my friend Christopher Tan. He obtained the recipe from a West Sumatran Padang-style rice plate restaurant in Jakarta. I looked at his recipe and figured it was very similar to what we had in Penang. Culinary ideas flow easily through that part of the world, as Chris pointed out in “Spice World”, there are nasi padang restaurants in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore (where he lives).
I made the recipe soon after I saw it. It was richer and more sophisticated than the version we had in Penang, which was fine because we had it with rice instead of rich roti. The spices weren’t finely ground and lent nice texture to the sauce. I imagine that the Penang cooks used a pre-ground mixture of spices. My husband and I enjoyed the curry for days as one batch makes enough for several meals.
Last week, Saveur editor-in-chief James Oseland called to catch up. He’s expert on the foods of that region, having written Cradle of Flavor. Among the things we chatted about was how good this curry is. No wonder leading up to Sunday, I had gulai ayam on my mind.
I gathered up the ingredients from my pantry and garden for another delectable batch. The list of ingredients is long but the paste comes together in minutes in a food processor. I’ve made this in an hour from top to bottom, including the rest at the end. Go for it! Maybe work it into your Sunday night rotation?
Notes: I’ve modified the recipe by using chicken legs and skinning them. The skin is better saved for rendering schmaltz or discarded. Stewed chicken skin is unappealing. I opted for football-shaped coriander seed but you can use the regular round ones. One can of coconut milk worked well for my palate.
If you don’t have the lime leaves, omit them. A comment on the original recipe at Saveur said it was fine. I’d double up on the lemongrass, or add galangal if a Kaffir lime tree wasn’t right outside my door or I didn’t have a stash in the freezer. Use all Thai chiles or combine Fresno with Thai for less heat.
Candlenuts (sold at Chinese markets in the Indonesian section) thicken the sauce so make sure you use them or the macadamia nut sub. As for knotting up the lemongrass, see James’s tip in this video. You can opt for cutting it into short lengths and whacking it.
Leftovers keep exceptionally well for days. Along with rice, we’ve had this Indonesian chicken curry with tortillas (whole wheat ones are nice) as well as Middle Eastern flatbread. French bread would be terrific too.
Indonesian Chicken Curry Recipe
Yields: 4 to 6 servings
- 8 chicken drumsticks or thighs, or a mix of both (a good 3 lb / 1.5 kg total)
- 2 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- ½ teaspoon whole cloves
- ¼ teaspoon cardamom seeds
- 10 red Thai chiles, or 3 Fresno chiles plus 2 or 3 red Thai chiles, stemmed and roughly chopped
- 5 large candlenuts or macadamia nuts
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 medium shallot, peeled and quartered
- Chubby 2-inch (5 cm) piece ginger, peeled and sliced
- 3 tablespoons canola or peanut oil (I used semi-refined Lion and Globe)
- 5 or 6 kaffir (makrut) lime leaves
- 2 sticks cinnamon
- 1 fat stalk lemongrass, trimmed and knotted
- 1 (13.5 oz / 400 ml) can coconut milk
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- Remove the skin from the chicken pieces. With the drumsticks, either cut the skin close to the knee joint to easily pull off the skin; or use a cleaver to whack off the knee joint, then remove the skin. Set aside.
- Put the coriander, cumin, fennel, nutmeg, turmeric, cloves, cardamom into a food processor. Whirl to grind up a bit. Add the chiles, candlenuts, garlic, shallots, ginger, and 2 tablespoons of water. Process into an oatmeal-like paste. It won’t be perfectly smooth.
- Heat the oil in a large saute pan or deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the paste, lime leaves, cinnamon, and lemongrass until fragrant and no longer raw smelling, 5 to 7 minutes.
- Add the chicken, turning to sear the pieces a little on the outside, 4 to 5 minutes. You don’t have to brown it. Add half of the coconut milk and enough water to cover the chicken three-quarter of the way up. Let cook, turning occasionally, for 30 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through; pierce with a knife tip to check.
- Stir in the remaining coconut milk and salt. Cook until slightly thickened, 2 to 3 minutes longer. Remove from the heat and let cool, uncovered, for about 15 minutes for the flavors to meld and mellow. Taste to see if extra salt is needed. Enjoy with rice or whatever starch you’d like. The lemongrass, cinnamon, and lime leaf are not edible.
Recipe adapted from Saveur.