Dicing with Death — Tweaking Mom’s Kari Ayam Recipe

This curry is really simple to make, and like all Peranakan dishes, tastes great. “But wait a minute here” I can imagine you saying, “the words ‘Peranakan’ and ‘simple to make’ just cannot belong together in one sentence!” And you are right in saying so. Peranakans are famed to be so fussy about applying the proper technique or method to build up a dish that they would religiously spend hours pounding the pestle and mortar or hunched over a hot stove, skimming and stirring, just so the taste will come out sedap (delicious. say: ser-dup). So it is reasonable to reason that it is impossible for any Peranakan dish to be ‘easy to make’.

On top of that, we Peranakans are so proud of our own cooking that we will never admit that another Baba’s (man) or Nonya’s (young lady. say: Nyo-ny-ar) tangan, (literally, hand ~A Peranakan term meaning one’s cooking. say: ton-ngan) had made a more delicious dish. If we cannot fault the taste, we’d fault the condiments, the temperature it’s served or even the plating. That’s how proud we are of our own cooking.

So now you begin to see why I titled this ‘Dicing with Death’? And I’m not talking about a Buah Keluak dish (the keluak nut contains cyanide), but that’s another topic altogether. Mom’s a strict and fierce Nonya and Grandma was also a strict Bibik (senior lady. say: Bee-beak) despite her smiley demeanour. Mom is a ‘drill sergeant’ in strictness and expects all her commands to be obeyed immediately with a clear “yes mom” reply and to be executed without any excursion from her specified method. Failing which, (as I’m wont to do as I’m always curious about … what if…) I’d get a resounding tongue lashing at best. But mostly, skin meeting the painful end of a cane which was de rigueur for me. Having said these, I’m gonna blog about her chicken curry recipe with my own modifications. I’m old enough to do things my way Mom, and I will, even though you still call me Lawrence-Boy.

That’s me at six months of age, carried by grandma. Although she looks like she’s dressed in traditional Malay garb, grandma and I are really Chinese — Straits-born Chinese.

Before I go any further, I have a confession to make. I hate curries.

OK, now, that I’ve said that, I guess I owe everybody an explanation. I’ve actually loved curries. Up till primary 2 (8 years of age), I had loved curries and would look forward to the curry that mom would make on memorial days. But I dislike the process of making curry, which I was to be called to do as I grew older.

Helping out with the family chores was part of our daily duties, since dad worked for a charitable organisation and his monthly pay was insufficient for our family expenses. Mom and grandma had to supplement the family income by making curry powder, cakes and cookies to sell. So, laying the table, clearing the dishes after a meal, wiping the dinner table clean after each meal, taking the rubbish out and tipping unfinished food scraps into the swill bin were my duty as the eldest child in the family, because my next sibling was but a toddler. And as if those chores weren’t detestable enough to an 8-year old boy whose only wish was to go out into the field to be with the animals, plants and insects, the list of duties continued to increase with each birthday.

The grind of making curry powder
The part I was expected to perform in the making of mom’s curry began as a fun game. Mom made curry from her own secret blend of spices and herbs. Nope, the ready-made curry paste available from the Indian spice shops of that era, just didn’t cut it for mom. So she’d get the raw spice ingredients from Tekka Market. Grandma winnowed them, and laid them out on huge trays. Grandma would play a game with me to pick out items that did not belong to that particular tray of spice. So I’d have great interest, picking out twigs, bark, stones, gravel, bits of jute and the seeds of weeds that did not belong to the spice concerned.

Then, the adults would clean the spices by wiping them with moistened cloth and sun dried them at the back lane behind our house. My duty was to act as scarecrow, to chase away any birds, cats or vermin that would come to inspect the trays, and to store them when the rains came. I had fun chasing the cats and rats and frightening birds off our spices. Such were the simple forms of entertainment I partook as a kid, when I was not taking things apart, which was the next most intriguing activity to me.

After sunning, the spices would be dry fried till fragrant, then taken to a spice mill along Selegie Road to be ground to powder. Mom didn’t allow me to go for the milling. And because she didn’t bring me, all the more, I wanted to go. She’d explain it’s dusty, hot, humid, noisy and the powdered spices in the air would make me sneeze. I imagined by tying a handkerchief over my nose like in the Westerns on Saturday afternoon TV shows, I’d overcome that. So each time, I’d offer to help mom carry the spices and walk with her to the mill. Finally one day, she agreed.

I found it to be as she had described.

On top of that, I got to see her jostle for her turn to have our spices ground when a bigger client came in and wanted to cut queue. I saw how mom had to stand her ground to insist the miller clean the mill by first grinding a handful of rice before starting on our job, and how she had to insist the grind was not fine enough or sometimes, too fine and persist till the miller change his millstones. Above all, I learned that it’s a boring experience, exacerbated by nasal irritation and smarting eyes and I never wanted to go to the mill anymore.

After grinding, the curry powder would be brought home, funnelled into two sizes of bottles (the tomato ketchup bottle and the large Ribena bottle), tamped down till stone hard, and packed in brown paper bags for the Bibiks’ orders. By compacting the curry powder into the bottles, it prevents the spices from turning mouldy and also not lose their fragrance. Customers would come back to tell us the bottle lasted them 5 years and was good and fragrant to the last teaspoonful. Mom didn’t use artificial preservative and the vacuum packer wasn’t invented till decades later, so tamping was the way in those days.

All those kiddy games I played while helping out, eventually turned out to be boring to me as I found freedom to run out with friends from Mackenzie Road, to shoot birds using a slingshot, at the Istana, fish from Rochor Canal (yes, there were Tilapia fish despite the pollution), or fight for downed kites at Farrer Park.

Alas, mom had different ideas from me, and by my 11th or 12th birthday, I was deemed old enough. So going to Tekka Market to buy the spices, and getting the curry powder ground became solely my responsibility. From then on, it was no longer a game, and I dreaded it when mom mentioned about orders coming in for another batch of Rempah Kari (curry powder. say: Rurm-pah Curry). I knew full well how I’d sweat and sneeze my sinuses out in the process. That’s how I took a dislike to curry.

When we eventually moved out of our tottering Bukit Timah Road shophouse to a 3-room flat, there was insufficient space to make Rempah Kari. By then my brother and I had started working and was also contributing to the family income, so the income from curry powder sales weren’t so crucial. I could recall how disappointed the Bibiks from Joo Chiat and Katong sounded when we told them we were no longer producing Poh Lian’s Rempah Kari. It also meant that once our stock of Rempah Kari were used up, that would be the last we tasted mom’s curry ever again. That was in 1993, and my thoughts were about the future. I didn’t have the time to get nostalgic, nor did I yearn for the past as the present was exciting and vibrant. There were careers to be made, mountains to be climbed, lands to be explored and seas to be fished. All sorts of cuisines to be savoured, friends from many lands to be made and strange languages to be learned. I had no time nor inclination to remember my Peranakan roots and foods.

Nostalgia with the passing of a sibling
Things all came to a screeching halt this year. My younger sister who had fought cancer for the past 5 years succumbed to the disease. In her final months, I spent time to cook things that would whet her appetite. Then after she returned to glory, I realised that we were also near losing mom’s recipes, which she had never imparted to any of us in its entirety. Perhaps mom didn’t teach us because she wanted us to excel at our chosen fields so we need never go back to those poor old days. After the funeral, my cousins encouraged me to learn mom’s recipe for her legendary Kueh Tart (pineapple tarts), before it’s gone forever. But not being inclined to baking, I took the opportunity of the three months mom lived at my house to learn her recipe for her Rempah Kari instead.

I went back to Selvi Store to buy the spices. The shopkeeper looked at their receipt from 1993, smiled and said: “Wow! You still have this! I can’t sell you at those prices anymore!” And we all had a good laugh.

So after completing my first batch of mom’s Rempah Kari, I made Chicken Curry as well as Fish Head Curry to test if the Rempah was correctly done. Mom approved the Rempah but I got a tongue lashing for cutting corners while making the chicken curry (haha I used MSG instead of using whole chicken). But now that I’ve made modifications without her knowing, and she is satisfied with both, I’ll share her Kari Ayam (Chicken Curry) recipe here for your enjoyment.

Chicken Curry Recipe
2 whole chickens with organs
Rempah Kari
1 big coconut, grated
2 handful shallots, peeled
Some garlic
Potatoes, boiled and quartered
Yellow onions, cut in rings
Cooking oil, salt and sugar to taste.

That’s it! That’s the precious recipe as mom had told me.
But how much of each precisely? I asked. How many grams or teaspoons?
Agak-Agak lah! (guess or estimate. say: ah-gark ah-gark)
And that’s the problem with Peranakan cooking. Mom (and grandma) never gave precise measures, but they expect their methods for cooking and preparation to be strictly adhered to. They won’t say how many degrees C should the oil be, or how long should I fry it. It’s all Agak-Agak. Instead, I’m expected to have my nose open to smell the fragrance, my eyes open to see the size of the bubbles in the oil, my ears open to hear the intensity of sizzling and my brains in gear to know how brown is sufficient as residual heat will further brown it. I needed to have some combination of all four to tell when anything is ready. I hated that, as it meant I had to spend hours cooking in order to experience the subtle nuances of that magical moment is when food cooked to the correct timing makes the metamorphosis from yuck to Ummmmmmmmaaaaai! So I’ll do for you, what I want others do unto me. I’ll give you the details in the discourse below. So you need not Agak-Agak.

Getting ingredients together
In this day and age, it’s hard to get 2 whole chickens with their organs unless you go to a wet market and buy the organs separately, or you slaughter your own self-raised chickens which I think may have been outlawed after the Bird Flu episode in the mid 2000s. So I’m gonna use things that’s commonly available from our local NTUC Supermarket, and the neighbourhood provision store. You need:

2kg Bone-in frozen Chicken Thighs
3-6 heaped Tbsp of Rempah Kari
1 large coconut milked for 1st cream and 2nd cream
6-8 shallots (small red onions), pounded to paste
3 cloves of garlic, chopped (if you are using the less aromatic garlic bulbs as in my photo below, you’d need 5-6 bulbs)
2 fist-sized potatoes per diner, boiled and quartered
2 large yellow onions, cut into rings
100ml cooking oil
5 Tsp sea salt
4 Tbsp Sake (Japanese rice wine)
3 Tsp White miso paste (Japanese fermented soybean paste)

2 Chicken frames for chicken stock
10cm square piece of Konbu Kelp (Dried kelp)
2 large Yellow Onions, halved
2 bunches of spring onions
1 red apple, halved

A whole chicken with the organs would deliver a rich and satisfying flavour to the curry. But we are using only chicken thighs and frozen ones for that matter. As a consequence, the dish will taste bland unless some flavour enhancers are added. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a legal form of flavour enhancer, but using MSG is considered bad style by health conscious folks these days. You will thus need to make chicken stock and add in a bit of white miso paste in order to raise up the umami and kokumi levels of the dish because Umami plus Kokumi makes a dish taste tasty without needing additional salt. If you are able to get the whole freshly slaughtered chicken with its organs, you can bypass this step of making the stock. Use water in place of stock.

Make your chicken stock a night before you make the curry. It will save you much effort and time when you make the curry the next day. I use Konbu Kelp which is rich in Glutamic and Aspartic acids and chicken bones which have Glutamic and Inosinic acids to raise the umami levels of the stock. Using salt and water, clean away all traces of blood from the chicken frames before you make stock as the blood will bring bad smells to your stock.

Clean Konbu Kelp with a piece of cloth. Do not wash, and do not remove the white powdery stuff which are the umami compounds. Soak in 3L of water and slowly bring to boil in low heat, to extract the umami flavour. Remove Konbu kelp just before the pot begin to boil and add in the two chicken frames. Bring the water to a rolling boil on high heat, and skim away all the scum that rise to the surface. Then lower the heat, add in the two halved onions, apple and spring onions. Slow simmer for 4 hours to extract all the umami into the stock. At the end of it, you will get clear soup stock with good flavour and umami. Set aside to cool at room temperature and do not disturb the pot.

Defrost the chicken thighs. Rinse away all traces of blood. Frozen chicken parts tend to have a bad smell. To get rid of that, rinse in a bath of sake and iced water, pat dry and coat with a pinch of salt to draw out more blood that cause the fowl smell. Leave it back in the refrigerator to draw out the fluids as the other ingredients are being prepared.

Peel the garlic.

And the Shallots.

Shell one large coconut and retain the water. I like to take shortcuts to simplify my cooking. But I draw the line when it comes to Santan (coconut cream, say: Sun-Tarn). I insist on using real coconuts instead of cream that comes frozen or worse, pasteurised and poured out of a tetra-pack. Once you have tasted fresh squeezed Santan, you will know what I mean. The difference is like comparing fresh squeezed orange juice to an orange flavoured cordial.

To peel potatoes easily, score a shallow line around each potato, then boil it. After it’s cooked and cooled, the skin will slip off easily.

Cut peeled potatoes into quarters.

Cut yellow onions into 10mm wide rings.

I got this delicious salt from Amed, a sleepy fishing village at Bali. Remove the specks of grit and sticks from the salt. If you use iodised salt, you can skip this process as your salt is clean.

I use raw sugar as it gives a more full-bodied taste to refined white sugar, but sugar is optional. Use less if you are using refined sugar.

Lastly, measure five to six heaped tablespoons of Rempah Kari (nonya curry powder).

The simple cooking

Pound garlic to coarse pieces around 3mm in size. You can also use a food processor to do it.

Finely pound shallots till it’s pasty, or blitz it in the food processor.

Grind coconut pieces in the food processor till you get fine pulp — The reason why I do not put my garlic and shallots in the food processor — I don’t want my Santan (coconut cream) to come out smelling of garlic and shallots.

Place coconut pulp in a piece of cloth and wring out the cream, this is the No. 1 Santan (coconut cream). Next, recharge the pulp with the coconut water you retained earlier and wring out the the cream again. This diluted cream is the No. 2 Santan (diluted coconut cream). If your coconut water taste sour, you can use plain water to recharge instead.

Slowly mix water to the Rempah to make a paste. The correct consistency is achieved when the paste begins to stick to the mixing spoon.

Tumis (sauté) the rempah (spices)

On medium high heat, tumis (sauté. say: too-mis) shallots in cooking oil till lightly browned.

Add in the garlic and continue to tumis till fragrant.

When some of the bits are turning brown, the fragrance will start to come out. Raise the heat to high as you want the oil for next step to be really hot.

Pour in the Rempah Kari paste and quickly stir fry. I do not fry for long since my Rempah Kari is precooked. I only stir fry long enough to get the curry paste to mix thoroughly with the oil, shallots and garlic, and to get hot enough to seal in the chicken juices.

Pour in the chicken, making sure you do not pour in the blood and fluids the salt had drawn out. Mix well with the Rempah Kari. The hot oil in the Rempah will seal in the juices to the chicken. But do not take too long to do this or the Rempah will burn, causing the curry to lose fragrance and have a bitter taste.

Pour in No. 2 Santan (diluted coconut cream) to quickly stop the heat so that the Rempah does not burn.

Pour in the chicken stock to just cover the chicken. Raise heat to the highest and bring to a rolling boil while stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, do not discard the leftover chicken bones, keep them in the fridge for recycling. Pick the flesh out from the bones at your leisure. With a bit of soysauce, vinegar, salt, a few slices of red chilli, and a dash of pepper, you can fry the shredded chicken in sesame oil and make a tasty side dish for another day.

Add in the yellow onion chunks.

When curry had reached a rolling boil, add a quarter of the cooked potatoes. You don’t wanna add in all the potatoes as they will melt away by the second day (curry taste best on the second day onwards), and boiling potatoes in the curry tend to make the gravy lose taste while the potatoes get very salty. Add salt and sugar to taste.

Lower the heat to a gentle simmer, cover the pot and simmer for two hours, stirring occasionally to prevent the bottom from burning. The fragrance of the chicken curry will start to be released after 45 minutes to 90 minutes of slow simmer, depending on shape of pot and the amount of heat.

Just before serving, dissolve 3 tsp of white miso paste. Miso is rich in glutamates which add umami to the dish. White miso is mild in flavour, so nobody will know that you added that! In addition, miso contains gluthathiones and calciums. The stuff that adds kokumi, which gives the curry added ‘punch’ in the taste department.

Add in the needed portions of potatoes, bring to a boil, pour in the No. 1 Santan (coconut cream), stir thoroughly and serve.

Serving and storage

Mom’s Rempah Kari was intentionally made mild (the seeds from two-thirds the chilli used were removed), so that all ages including children can eat it. If you prefer a hotter taste, additional powdered paprika can be added to suit your taste. Normally, we eat the rice swimming in curry — another reason for the spice level to be mild. We also do not have egg with the curry, only white rice or noodles. But I thought the dish looked plain and unappetising, so I added in an onsen tamago. But it still looked plain! Then I realised I’ve run out of coriander leaves to top for garnish. Drat!

The Science behind 2-day old curry
I mentioned that curry tastes best from the second day onwards. That’s when the aromatic compounds from the Rempah have had time to get trapped in the fragrant oil that had rendered from Santan — The rich creaminess of fresh Santan can limit one’s ability to eat more as it gets Jelak (boring/saturating to eat. say: Jer-lark) due to its richness. Also, the creaminess of fresh Santan have a way of muting down the aroma, suffocating the scent of spices. This is not a good thing unless you find your Rempah too overpowering. So the repeated boiling and then cooling down of the curry converts cream from Santan into a fragrant and healthy oil. This fragrant oil keeps the flavours of the spices from evaporating away. But unlike other oils, it’s not heavy, allowing one to enjoy copious amounts of the curry without feeling Jelak.

I usually dish out a bit of curry on the first day, and leave the rest to age. The creaminess of Santan can be enjoyed only on the first day. To keep the curry from spoiling, bring the pot to a rolling boil, cover with lid and turn off the heat. Do not disturb the pot again. If any curry is scooped out or the pot disturbed, you need to repeat the process of boiling, or the curry will turn bad. Heat up before each meal, ladle out what is needed, then bring to boil before setting aside. Over time and the many boilings, the santan will render to a thick, rich, healthy oil, which make the curry tastier.

In this final shot, I dusted some Aonori green seaweed flakes in place of coriander leaves to give it some colour contrast and came out with this photo. Don’t do that to your curry — it taste like oysters had been mixed with chicken. A strange, but not unpleasant flavour.

If you prefer bread to rice, this curry works brilliantly as a soup to dip your baguettes into.

Hope you enjoy your curry.


[edit: 2 Jan 2017] Many thanks for all who wrote to me to express your interest in purchasing this curry powder, your encouragement had spurred me on to decide to make it available for all who wants to buy it. After doing my sums on pricing, I have finally come up with a price for the sale of Poh Lian’s Nonya Rempah Kari.

Due to the artisanal nature of the production process, I’m taking preorders for the next production run, which is after Chinese New Year, when sunny weather is forecast again. The price is $50 per kilo if you self collect (it will be vacuum packed in 500g portions to maintain freshness of unused portions).
If you want it sent to you, for Singapore postcodes, postage is an additional $10 for P&H. Overseas postage is also possible, please PM me for rates.

Text and Images © Lawrence Lee
All Rights Reserved

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