Recipe: Aunty Jianab's Ayam Masak Merah

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Ayam masak merah is a Malay fried chicken that's cooked in a dense, crimson chilli gravy that is both spicy and sweet.

    •1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
    •5 shallots
    •10 dried chillis
    •3 cloves of garlic
    •1 can tomato puree (140 grams or 4.9 oz.)
    •1/4 cup liquid gula melaka or palm sugar **
    •1/8 cup kecap manis
    •1/2 cube chicken bouillon cube
    •1/4 cup of water
    •1 tsp salt, plus more for seasoning the chicken

Lightly salt the chicken pieces and set them aside for half an hour before cooking. Soak the dried chillis in hot water for five minutes until they're soft. Drain them and then set them aside.

Using a blender, puree the shallots, chillies, garlic and enough water so that you form a wet paste. This is known in Malay as the rempah, or seasoning paste that will form the flavor backbone of the dish. Set this rempah aside.

Pour enough oil into a wok so that the oil comes up two or three inches high--heat the oil. When it's crackling hot, fry the chicken pieces until they start to turn golden but are not fully cooked. Remove the chicken and set it aside.

Pour out the hot oil in the wok, reserving about 1/4 cup of oil. Heat that 1/4 cup of oil--when it's hot again, add the rempah to the wok and fry it over high heat until it's fragrant and you can really smell the spices. Add 1/4 cup of water and the 1/2 chicken bouillon cube and mix it up, making sure that the cube dissolves. Add tomato puree, then gradually stir in the kecap manis. Look at the color carefully--you want it to be a dark crimson. If it starts getting too dark, dial back on your kecap manis, which sweetens it.

Stir in the gula melaka then add 1 tsp of salt and the chicken pieces. Fry it altogether until the chicken is completely cooked through, which should just be a few minutes.

Serve hot with steamed rice. Note: This dish is often better a day or two after you make it so the flavors have more time to mingle together and deepen.

** Gula melaka is sold in solid chunks. To liquify these chunks, heat them over low heat in a sauce pan, adding water as it melts until you reach a maple syrup-like consistency. Then run the liquid through a sieve so flies and other impurities are removed.

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Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York-based food and fashion writer. She is the author of the recently released A Tiger In The Kitchen, a food memoir about learning about her family in Singapore by cooking with them.

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