Photo by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
To try Aunty Jianab's Ayam Masak Merah, click here for the recipe.
Most people, if they're lucky, have a friend whose mother is such a phenomenal cook that they find themselves shamelessly dropping hints to be invited to dinner at every possible chance.
Among my high school friends in Singapore, that mother would be Aunty Jianab, who has such a golden touch in the kitchen that her everyday dinners and the annual feast she prepares to mark the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, are recounted with great yearning for weeks and months afterward.
At her dinner table, the dish that's most requested is ayam masak merah, a Malay fried chicken that's cooked in a dense, crimson chili gravy that is both spicy and sweet.
Now, this dish can be found in the many Malay stalls and restaurants in Singapore that sell nasi padang, a meal of rice accompanied with a variety of dishes that first originated in Indonesia. (In Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian language, nasi padang literally means "rice from Padang," a city in Sumatra.) The dishes you'll typically find in a nasi padang restaurant include pickled vegetables, fried or grilled fish in curried sauces, spicy chicken and beef rendang, a delicious dish of beef slow-cooked in a rich, coconut milk-based curry. The Dutch also have a version of this meal, transported back from their days as colonialists in Southeast Asia, known as rijsttafel or "rice table."