Photo by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
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.
As our eating slowed and we finally, regretfully, put down our forks, Aunty Jianab shared one more story.
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."
One of my absolute favorite nasi padang dishes has always been ayam masak merah. Because the chicken is lightly deep-fried, it has a lovely crispy quality to it -- but it also comes doused in a complex sauce that's fiery yet also honeyed. It's seriously hard not to love this dish.
During a recent trip that I made to Singapore, Aunty Jianab finally agreed to teach us how to make it.
The process, it turned out, was fairly easy. First, you salt the chicken pieces and set them aside. Then, you blend together shallots, dried chilies and garlic to form a spice paste. You fry up the chicken and set it aside. Then, you fry up the spice paste together with tomato puree, liquid gula melaka (or palm sugar), salt, a chicken bouillon cube and kecap manis and then add the chicken to the mix and stir.
Of course, Aunty Jianab made it look terribly simple, gliding with lightning-quick ease through the motions while I, together with her daughter Aisah and our friend Jeanette watched nervously, trying to keep up and make sure every step was carefully committed to both notepad and memory while also jumping in to measure a liquid or open a can wherever we could.
The minutes flew by--before we knew it, the chicken was done and we were sitting down to eat. Aunty Jianab's ayam masak merah was a little darker--and sweeter--than versions you'll typically find in nasi padang stalls. And it was far superior, I thought--many versions I've tried are too heavy on the spiciness or so bland that the sweet notes are barely detectable.
As we dug into the chicken, also padding up our rice plates with gobs of stir-fried garlicky green beans and crackling deep-fried ikan bilis (anchovies), Aunty Jianab began to share her kitchen tales. She had learned to cook when she was a girl, she said, growing up in Singapore. For years, she made mostly basics like simple Malay curries and soups--it wasn't until Aisah turned 4 that she had more time to learn more complex dishes. Her ayam masak merah recipe was gleaned from watching women cook at Malay wedding festivities over the years, she said.
"Wow," Aisah said at one point. "I never knew all this about my Mum!"
As our eating slowed and we finally, regretfully, put down our forks, Aunty Jianab shared one more story. In the village where she grew up, Aunty Jianab one day spotted a handsome man who instantly caught her attention.
Since he was new to the village, her family began inviting him over for dinner--and this turned out to be a chance for the shy, young Jianab to impress him with her cooking skills. Over the course of several dinners, she plied him with delicious curries and rice dishes.
Her cooking worked its magic. And the rest, as they say, is history.