Auntie Ruby's Nonya Curry Chicken

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

I know I am biased. Every boy grows up loving the curry his Mum made and I am no exception. Mum’s version is the best. I have memories of eating it with white bread, sucking clean every bone and wiping up every bit of the curry. Hers is a Nonya version and it is sometimes called Curry Kapitan.

These are the reasons why I like it:
  • The meat is cooked just right; firm and yet tender to the bite. If you see the meat falling off the bone, it is a clear sign that the curry is overcooked and that won’t be my mum’s.
  • There is sufficient oil in the curry which adds to its smooth mouth-feel. It is supposed to be a curry, not soup. Her curry is drier and not swimming in coconut milk. Note that spices are oil-soluble.  
  • The wonderful fragrance of spices and herbs is a clear sign that the curry was made from fresh spices and herbs.
Let’s start with some basics about what makes for a good curry.

You need a good-tasting chicken. I normally get the fresh ones from the wet market and avoid the frozen variety from the supermarts. Free-range chicken will, of course, taste better. Spices need to be fresh. Use fresh spice powder mix or toast and grind seeds. As for chilli paste, I will normally make paste from dried chilies or buy ready-made fresh paste from the market. Shallots or onions are essential to give body to this curry.

As for potatoes, get the yellow fleshed ones, please. They are tastier and have a nice, crumbly texture.

A wok or a wide-mouthed, traditional curry claypot will work well for cooking this dish, ensuring even cooking throughout and a curry that’s thickened through condensation.As you can imagine, if accompanied by a veg like cucumber and bread or rice at the dining table, this chicken curry is a complete meal.

In this recipe I will omit adding spices like cumin or coriander seeds as these take it towards the Indian direction. My mum's lean towards the Nonya version which allow the lemon grass and turmeric to shine through.

Auntie Ruby's Curry Chicken Recipe

1.5 kg (3.3 lb) chicken 
1 kg (2.2 lbs) potato

3 lemongrass bulbs 
20 shallots (or 3 large onions)
10 cloves garlic
1 tbsp chopped turmeric (or 1 tsp turmeric powder)
10 candlenuts (buah keras)

Dry Spices
1 cinnamon stick
2 star aniseeds

30 dried chillies or equivalent chilli paste
240 ml (1 cup) cooking oil 2 tbsps salt
1 tbsp sugar
240 ml (1 cup) water
200 ml  coconut milk
1 sprig curry leaves

Preparing the paste
  1. Clean out the inside of the chicken thoroughly. Cut the chicken into small to medium pieces. Keep the skin and fats on.
  2. Blend the bulbs of the lemongrass, shallot, candlenuts, garlic, and turmeric finely.
  3. Soak the dried chillies in warm water for 15 minutes and blend finely.
  4. Peel the potatoes and cut into about 21⁄2-cm chunks.
Cooking the curry
  1. Heat up the oil in a wok or wide, deep pot, then add the paste, dry spices and chilli paste.
  2. Simmer on low flame for 20 minutes. Stir to ensure there is no bottom burning. If needed, add some water to bring down the heat and add moisture to the simmering paste. Add half the salt and sugar.
  3. Put in the chicken and stir. Add the 240 ml of water and simmer. After 10 minutes, add the potatoes and curry leaves. Stir occasionally to ensure there is no bottom burning.
  4. Then, add the coconut milk. Taste and adjust with salt and sugar according to what you like.
  5. After about 40 minutes of cooking, the chicken meat should be done.
If the chicken has lots of fat, there may be too much oil for your liking. Just remove some and keep it for use on another occasion.

You can add salt according to taste along the way but be careful as the curry gets saltier as the water evaporates. The safe bet is a conservative amount right at the beginning and a final adjustment towards the end.  A red layer of oil should surface during the last phase. Use a shallow spoon to remove some of it.

The end result is a tasty curry sauce, dry, nicely textured, slightly oily and certainly not watery. The meat does not fall off the bone.

This dish can take different ethnic directions according to the spices you use (e.g. cumin and fenugreek for a more Indian taste), adding ingredients like tomatoes, ginger etc. I have a curry cookbook and it is amazing to read about the many types of curry chicken one can make.

This dish goes well with fried bee hoon, white rice, yellow rice (nasi kunyit), naan, prata and of course, white bread. 

The members of the one big happy curry family. Cheap and easily available at your local market. 

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  1. It is really similar to what my mom used to make. I say used to because it has evolved to something else today. Is it because she's trying to make it healthier? I don't know. She just doesn't make it like I remember it in my teens now. Oily and a little soupy, as I loved to drink up the curry like it was a soup!

  2. Have not tried making the dry version but will give your recipe a shot and hope it turns out at least half as yummy as how the one in your photos look. In the wet versions that I have concocted, I found that using yoghurt bought from the Indian stalls at Geylang Serai Market instead of coconut, gives rather good outcomes - adds creaminess and a slight sour tinge without the 'jelak' edge that coconut milk sometimes produces. By the way, thumbs up on the photography - just looking at photos makes one hungry! Especially like the artistic composition of the ingredients in the curry family.

  3. Terry, my mother in law (Malaysian) usually makes a lot of curry paste and gives me a tub which is kept in the freezer. I thaw and use some each time, and it doesn't spoil at all! We always use Indonesian potatoes (yellow flesh, greyish brown skin) and brown the chopped pieces first. Are these the best kind of potatoes to use?
    Btw, her favoured style is the drier type and most of the time, it's so fragrant already that she has no need to add coconut milk/cream at all...healthier too. :)

  4. Lilian: This recipe should be quite easy to replicate and worth giving a shot. Yoghurt is commonly used in Indian cooking and definitely good for curries though using it will certainly move u away from the nyonya direction. I will say curry chicken is one dish which can be varied easily according to what u prefer.

    Hem Joo: I have not tried using enough variety of potatoes to be able to comment. Yellow flesh ones from Msia r generally good. I have made this dish wo coconut milk before and I enjoyed it as well.

  5. Wow. Nice =) Your curry chicken is making me hungry.

  6. Hello,
    How many grams are in the packet of coconut cream?