This Malaysian Cooking Technique Makes Curries, Sauces & Stews *Sing*

The wonders of pecah minyak, or "breaking the oil."

July  1, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Walk into any curry house in Malaysia and you’ll often find a sea of curries on display. There are chunky, hunky beef rendangs, turmeric-tinged hunks of ayam masak lemak (literally “fat-cooked chicken”), crimson fish curries that make your brows sweat just from staring at them for too long, and just in case you were missing your greens, wilted spinach leaves curled up in coconut milk curry.

But for all the traffic-light hues and variations they come in, there is one common feature that Malaysian curries share—they’re flecked with specks of oil, gleaming on their surface, separated from the bulk of the curry below. Because to make a great Malaysian curry, you have to split the sauce.

In much of Western cooking, a split or broken sauce is a sign of a dish gone bad, or at best, a lack of technique. Split mayonnaises, chocolate ganaches, and textures resembling curdled milk are vilified. Even a trace amount of fat pooled on top of a soup would incite a revolt. French cuisine, especially, abhors broken sauces. Oh, the number of times I got tut-tutted at in my culinary school stint in Paris for splitting a sauce Béarnaise or rouille! “C’est très très moche, non?” my teacher, Chef Guillaume, would say.

But now that I’m back in Malaysia, broken sauces are everywhere. Our curries, rendangs, and gulais (the collective Malay word for stews) are never completely smooth. Whether it’s in an opulent crab dish, a chile-forward fish head stew, or a classic Malaysian chicken curry, splitting the sauce is such a key step in the process that we even have a culinary term for it: pecah minyak, literally meaning “breaking the oil.”

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Top Comment:
“It's so important to fry the onion, tomatoes, ginger, garlic paste in oil so that the oil separates in North Indian curries. Thank you for an informative article, Yi!”
— Annada R.

And it isn’t just Malaysian curries. In the curry-crazed cuisine of Thailand, tom yams and massaman curries all have beads of oil shimmering salaciously on the surface. Goan fish curries and lamb rogan joshes of India have a slick layer of oil you have to plunge through to get to the sauce itself. And since Indonesia and Singapore share a similar cuisine to Malaysia, the process of pecah minyak is very much in their culinary genes, too.

Yes, there are curries out there that are tempered with cream or coconut milk, helping it emulsify into a smoother, more homogenous sauce, but even those start off split.

To understand why, one must understand how curries are made. Most start off with a blend of aromatics, usually a ground-up paste of chiles, garlic, onions, cumin, and a blend of spices specific to each curry. This paste is first sweated in a bit of oil, releasing the liquid contained within the ingredients. Then, about 10 minutes in, as the ratio of liquid to oil decreases, the paste will naturally separate from the oil it was fried it, giving it a curdled look.

Splitting the sauce is such a key step in the process that we even have a culinary term for it: pecah minyak, literally meaning “breaking the oil.”

The reason for this is two-fold: For one, this flavors the oil, lending a fragrance that wafts up as it cooks into the meat later on. But more than anything, a broken sauce signifies that the flavor of the curry paste has been drawn out and intensified to its peak; this is when the paste has the most panache, the most flavor. Fry it any longer and it’ll start to burn.

So yes, while splitting a sauce might seem like a counterintuitive step in cooking—and possibly an unfamiliar one to those who’ve never ventured into curry territory—it certainly makes for better, bolder dishes. And without it, curries wouldn’t be able to reach their headiest heights.

To get you started, here’s a gentle primer into the world of pecah minyak, in the form of my simple Malaysian chicken curry. It’s a dish that doesn’t ask much of you—other than to break the sauce in the beginning. It’s the first curry I learned from my mom, and the one I cook most often whenever I’m craving a bowl of Malaysian comfort.

Have you ever tried this technique? Let us know in the comments below.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Bari Hsiung
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Engineer + cook + food blogger. All about cross-cultural cooking, funky-fresh ferments, and abusing alliteration.


Bari H. September 17, 2019
Try to marinade the chicken with the said paste and curry powder overnight in the Fridge and you'll get a better infused tasting chicken. This is how we do it in Melaka :)
AlwaysLookin September 13, 2019
Come on dude, give me some simple directions please ...
Rico S. September 13, 2019
When I see that many ingredients I know I don’t have time to shop and make that dish. I’ll just buy a live Maine lobster!
Annada R. July 3, 2019
Wow, such similarities with North Indian food! It's so important to fry the onion, tomatoes, ginger, garlic paste in oil so that the oil separates in North Indian curries. Thank you for an informative article, Yi!
Fatima July 1, 2019
Same in Indian/Pakistani cooking. When I was first learning to make salans (curries), the two major things I struggled to get right were properly caramelizing the onions and splitting the sauce.
Author Comment
Yi J. July 2, 2019
Ooh yes, took me awhile to get used to it too. Splitting the sauce is so counterintuitive. But it's such an important step!
Eric K. July 1, 2019
I learn so much from reading you, Jun.
Author Comment
Yi J. July 2, 2019
And me you, Eric!!
Mike L. July 1, 2019
You are so right. I've been cooking curries this way and this is most apparent in rendang, helped along with the addition of kerisik.
Author Comment
Yi J. July 2, 2019
Ooh I LOVE kerisik!! Pity it's a little hard to find in the US though!
Lisa July 2, 2019
It's not difficult to do your own kerisik...toast or fry dry on low fire some coconut shavings until it turns golden hue...use the pestle & mortar to get the kerisik oiled...if you were to use the blender, the kerisik won't get oily properly