KUALA LUMPUR, July 25 — A dance of fire and flavour upon your tongue: that’s how it tastes, but not how it begins.
Rewinding, we see that it starts with a generous coating of turmeric powder. This gives the underlying golden hue to every piece of chicken.
Tomatoes in the form of purée, perhaps fortified with a squirt or two of ketchup as backup, for a distinctive tanginess.
Red hot chillies are a must to give this red chicken its pedas kick. Some honey to mellow things out and for that sweetness in life we all crave.
Clearly this endeavour owes much to our Malaysian dish of ayam masak merah for its base recipe but I would hardly call my version “authentic” given the number of substitutions I’ve made: tomato purée instead of fresh tomatoes and ketchup, the inclusion of fresh red chillies rather than only dried red chillies, and so on.
A couple more differences sealed its fate: the addition of peanut butter, which gives it a lovely nutty creaminess, and the carbs with which it’s served.
Rather than steamed white rice or nasi tomato, a popular pairing for ayam masak merah, I’ve decided to serve my take with a variety of starches depending on what’s available in my pantry (and my mood): spicy Korean ramyun (instant noodles), Japanese shirataki noodles or Thai riceberry grains.
Let’s call this “Red Chicken, Served Three Ways” — Korean, Japanese or Thai!
All that excitement aside, there is a practical reason for changing things up a little. As you know, most braised meats taste better the following day.
So on weekends, when we have more time, it makes sense to double or triple a recipe and cook enough for several meals, thereby saving time in the busy work week ahead.
Weekends are designed for meal prep, no?
But it can get a little dull, eating the same dish over and over.
Sometimes it’s because we have only a few ingredients in our pantry or are using fewer to keep things simple. Sometimes it’s because we know but a few recipes or only feel confident with our limited repertoire.
The bottomline is that it can get boring, rather quickly, unless we switch things up a little. Hence the trinity of carb choices.
On days when we are feeling a tad feisty (and perhaps overly courageous), tearing open a packet of spicy Korean ramyun seems to be a sound idea. (Though these volcanic instant noodles always make me fearful for the sanctity of my tastebuds; I always have a glass of cold milk ready, just in case.)
Some days, we feel as though going on a diet wouldn’t be a bad idea. That’s where the Japanese shirataki noodles, which are made from konjac yam (konnyaku) and nearly zero calories, come in.
Feel like some extra healthy fibre with lots of bite and flavour? Try Thai riceberry: the purplish black grains are chewy, delicious and easy on the eyes.
Whichever we select would be a great match for the spicy, tangy and sweet red chicken. Our tastebuds — and our imagination — will thank us.
Red chicken, served three ways
Enjoying this fiery red chicken in three ways — Korean, Japanese or Thai — refers mainly to the starches that we eat it with. Each has its own unique texture and taste (and some are healthier options than others, shall we say).
But another way to deepen the individual Korean, Japanese or Thai flavours is by substituting half of the sambal below with the same amount of a different paste.
For the Korean red chicken, try gochujang, a spicy-sweet red chilli paste made from gochu-garu (Korean chilli powder), glutinous rice and fermented soybeans. Replace half the sambal with miso for a Japanese touch or with tom yam paste for a touch of Thai.
Or you could just stick with the base recipe using the full amount of sambal listed below. It will taste just as good.
Also, consider blanching some leafy greens such as xiao bai cai or nai pak to counterbalance all that spice. This is entirely optional, of course; sometimes all we desire is a plate full of spicy meat and starches.
If you prefer your heat tempered with a bit of coolness, that’s where the greens — simply blanched in unsalted water — comes in to prevent your palate from being overwhelmed.
As a bonus, you’ll have a complete meal — meat, vegetables and carbs — in a single dish. This is as easy as it gets, no?
Ingredients: Aromatic Sambal
4 small red onions or shallots
16 fresh red chillies
16 dried chillies
4 cloves garlic
1 large knob of fresh ginger
2 pieces star anise
¼ teaspoon cinnamon powder
½ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon neutral cooking oil
Ingredients: Red Chicken
500g chicken thighs
1 tablespoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon salt
Neutral cooking oil
3 tablespoons sambal
200g tomato purée
1 tablespoon tomato ketchup (optional)
1 tablespoon runny honey
1 tablespoon peanut butter
Salt and pepper to taste
To make the sambal, combine all the ingredients for the sambal in a food processor and mix until smooth. Heat the cooking oil in a pan. Add sambal ingredients and fry for a few minutes till fragrant and darkened in colour.
Remove the sambal from the heat and set aside to cool. The cooled sambal can be made ahead of time and kept in the fridge for a week.
Coat the pieces of chicken thighs with turmeric powder and salt. Allow to marinate for half an hour. When ready, fry the marinated chicken in oil over medium-high heat.
Turn the pieces occasionally and watch closely to make sure they don’t burn. Once golden brown, remove from oil and allow to drain on kitchen paper. Set aside.
In a clean pan, sauté the sambal in oil over medium heat until aromatic. Next add water, tomato purée (and ketchup, if using). Turn the heat up to high and bring to a boil, after which immediately reduce to the lowest setting.
Allow the red sauce to simmer. Once the sauce has begun to thicken (about 10 minutes), add the fried chicken pieces, honey and peanut butter. Stir well to combine and coat the chicken in the sauce. Taste and season with salt and pepper accordingly.
Serve hot with starches of choice (Korean ramyun, Japanese shirataki noodles or Thai riceberry) and some blanched leafy greens, if desired. Garnish with fresh cilantro and sliced fresh red chillies for more pops of colour.
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