Slowly braise in a sweet tomato sauce, this chicken has lovely spice from ingredients such as chilies, lemongrass, and cloves.
By Ai Ping
So the translation’s not exactly accurate. If I stick to my guns, ayam masak merah would be red cooked chicken. Or chicken cooked in red. How enchanting is that? It’s not.
The chicken is fried and then slowly braised in a spicy, sweet and sourish sauce. Essentially, it’s a traditional Malay style dish.
Spicy tomato chicken and I, we go way back. Nasi Lemak (a local Malaysian dish) stalls in K.L. are like Taco trucks in L.A. They’re everywhere. In my teens, if I stopped at a nasi lemak stall, I’d look out for two things. Cute guys and whether the nasi lemak stall has spicy tomato chicken.
- 2½ lb chicken (or 10 drumsticks)
- 16 shallots, peeled
- 1inch ginger, peeled and roughly sliced
- 1inch galangal (blue turmeric), use knife to slice skin off and roughly chop
- 5 garlic cloves, peeled
- 10 dry cayenne chilies, deseeded and soaked in hot water for 10 minutes
- 2 stalks lemongrass, white parts only, thinly sliced
- 2 tsp ground turmeric (or ¾? fresh turmeric, peeled)
- ¼ cup oil
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 star anise
- 3 cloves
- 2 cardamoms
- 1 can (15 oz) tomato sauce
- 1 cup water
- 2 tbs sugar
- 1½ tsp salt or to taste
- 3-4 tomatoes, cut into wedges
- 1 small red onion, sliced
- Optional (for color): Deep fry or sear the chicken. I usually do the latter. The chicken doesn’t have to be cooked through.
- Put all ingredients for the spice paste in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. I mix the turmeric in later so that I don’t stain my blender.
- Over medium heat, pour the paste into a pan, add the cinnamon stick, star anise, cloves and cardamom. Fry for 10 minutes until fragrant. Add additional water or oil 1 tablespoon at a time if the paste is getting too dry. Do not burn the paste. Turn the heat to medium low if needed.
- Pour 1 tablespoon of oil into the paste, add the sliced onions and fry for a couple minutes.
- Add the tomato sauce, turn the heat to medium high and stir.
- Add in the chicken and continue to stir for a couple minutes. Add the water and bring the sauce to a boil.
- Once the sauce is boiling, season with sugar and salt. Turn the heat to medium low and simmer covered for 1 – 1½ hours. Just before serving, add the tomatoes and cook until they soften. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with steamed rice.
2. If you like the onions to still have a crunch, add in the onions later.
Shallots (short, pink type), galangal (or blue ginger), lemongrass and turmeric can be found in most Asian markets (especially Thai in this case) if you can’t find them in regular stores.
I buy my spices from Mountain Rose because I can easily buy most of them under one roof – cayenne chilies, cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, & cardamom pods.
Cayenne chilies are spicy . If you use a milder type of dry chili, you’ll have to double or maybe even triple the amount in this recipe. To give you an idea, cayenne’s spiciness scale is 30k – 50k while Jalapeno or Fresno is only 3k – 10k. Serrano or Holland chilies are about 10k – 20k while Thai bird’s eye chilies are 100k.
Don’t be thrown off by the spice paste. Malay and Indian style food is pretty similar. Onions or shallots, ginger, galangal, turmeric, garlic, chilies and/or lemongrass forms the base paste. Then there are the spices like cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom or star anise. Top it with sauces like tomato sauce, coconut milk or yogurt and you’re done.