Serves a Crowd

Malaysian Chicken Curry

May 28, 2019
8 Ratings
Photo by Rocky Luten
  • Prep time 15 minutes
  • Cook time 45 minutes
  • Serves 4 to 6
Author Notes

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.”

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.

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. —Jun

What You'll Need
  • 6 shallots
  • 8 garlic cloves
  • 1 stalk lemongrass
  • 1 (2-inch) piece ginger
  • 5 dried red chiles
  • 2 Thai red chiles, for extra spice (optional)
  • 5 tablespoons oil
  • 5 tablespoons Malaysian curry powder (usually labelled "meat curry powder"), I use Baba's or Alagappa's
  • 1/2 teaspoon chile powder, plus more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 star anise
  • 10 to 15 curry leaves
  • 2 1/2 pounds bone-in chicken thighs and drumsticks
  • 4 cups water, or enough to cover chicken
  • 3 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 1 1/2 cups coconut milk
  1. In a food processor, blend the shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, and both chiles until they form a smooth paste. (Alternatively, you can take the more traditional, and more laborious, route—pounding it with a mortar and pestle until smooth.)
  2. Heat up the oil in a deep pot or wok set over medium heat. Add the blended paste and stir-fry until it turns fragrant and intensifies in color. This should take 6 to 8 minutes.
  3. Then, add the curry powder, chile powder, and salt, frying for another 3 to 5 minutes, or until the spice paste starts to glisten and split and you can see an oily film separate from the paste itself. This is the “pecah minyak” stage. (If your paste is cooking too quickly and starts to burn, add a teaspoon or two of water.)
  4. When the spice paste has reached the “pecah minyak” stage, add the cinnamon stick, star anise, curry leaves, and chicken. Mix and continue frying for 3 to 5 minutes, until the chicken is evenly coated in the curry paste. Then, pour water into the pot until the pieces of chicken are just covered. Cover the pot with a lid and let it simmer for 10 minutes. Add the potatoes, and simmer for another 25 to 30 minutes, until both the chicken and potatoes are cooked through.
  5. Finally, pour in the coconut milk. Give it a quick stir, and let the curry simmer for another 2 to 3 minutes. Taste the curry, adding more salt at this stage if necessary.
  6. The curry is best served hot. It’s especially great with steamed white rice along with other Asian sides, or with Malaysian breads like roti canai or roti jala.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

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    Adam Petritsis
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  • Young Mimi Lee
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  • Abdul Nasheer
    Abdul Nasheer
  • Audrey

18 Reviews

Osimeon00 August 18, 2023
Made this last night with some adjustments and fell in love! I used chopped skinless chicken breast. Based on the last comment and just common food sense, I knew instinctively to pre-season the chicken with at least salt and pepper and not to use water but chicken stock for stronger flavor. The chicken tasted good but still did not have enough seasoning for my taste so next time I will add curry and all purpose chicken seasoning to it to pre-season it to my preference. The flavor profile and aroma was insane! My kitchen smelled like a Malaysian dream! I did everything pretty much verbatim except instead of potatoes I used sweet potatoes and added carrots and it was amazing! Sweet potatoes are perfect for this and adds a nice sweet-savory touch and the color is beautiful in the sauce. Watch the time. The potatoes and carrots cooked in 10 minutes instead of the 25-30 min in the directions, so add them later on. The coconut milk can dissolve the salt flavor so make sure to add some salt back. I added some cilantro at the end for color and served with white basmati rice and fried plantains. So delicious, flavorful, and one of the best dinners I've made in a long time! Thank you so much for this recipe!
Judi March 1, 2021
Lots of great ingredients and effort to only become a tasteless dish due to boiling it all in water!! Chicken or vegetable stock should be used.
Audrey October 27, 2021
This recipe is perfectly fine without chicken or vegetable stock. Plenty flavorful. I've never had to use stock in any curry actually. Neither did my mom or aunties or their mom.
Eliiiise86 November 17, 2020
Thank you for the recipe! I see you've lived in France, could you please tell me which curry powder or curry sauce to buy there ? I can't find a curry that taste the same as in Malaysia...
Adam P. September 7, 2020
After you add the potatoes, do you still cook it with the lid on?
Raisa I. March 29, 2020
thank u for the recipe. will definitely try it. give mine a try too
VJP November 7, 2019
Today is Wednesday, and I made this curry for tomorrow's dinner. I tweaked the dish: I added the pungent, garlicky, stinky, Malaysian fish paste called, belachan. Adding belachan to this dish has taken it through the stratosphere and beyond. The dish is now spectacular. Before I go to bed tonight, I am going to make the dough for roti canai. Dinner tomorrow will be awesome.

(Belachan can be ordered from Amazon and costs around $7.99.)
Young M. September 24, 2019
Love, love, love this curry~! The flavour was so different from any curry I know, but so flavourful! This is a new favourite. I found the Malaysian curry very easily in Chinatown. I used all 5 Tbsp as per recipe, it had some kick, probably from the Thai chilies. I did not add any other chilies as per recipe, that's the only change I made.
Thank you for sharing.
Barb July 7, 2019
What kind of curry powder is used? I quick google search lists 188 million hits for curry powder, even searching Malaysian curry powder results in over 2 million hits. With today's modern cuisine it's important to be more specific (the recipe does call for 5 Tablespoons of the stuff). Chile powder should also be more specific. Thanks.
Myrna T. September 13, 2019
I have exactly the same problem with recipes that are non-specific with ingredients! I either dump them or adapt with ingredients I have on hand which doesn’t allow you to experience the recipe as written. I am an experienced cook but this must be so frustrating to a novice. Food 52 please take note!
Bill September 13, 2019
Try the curry powder that you have. If 5T seems like too much based on your experience, cut back. There are lots of other flavours in this recipe. I like Bolst's hot curry powder. For 2 1/2 pounds of chicken I would start with 1T.
Jun September 13, 2019
AH that's very true! Sorry about that, I've edited it. Hope it helps!
Jun September 13, 2019
Thanks for this Myrna, I totally get you. Sorry, this was my fault entirely. I've edited it so hopefully it clears things up!
Barb September 14, 2019
Thank you for the update. Now I can make it and have it taste the way you intended.
Jacinta F. February 12, 2020
Use babas meat curry powder, can be found in most Asian or Indian grocers
Bhabig June 4, 2020
So just to be sure of the change you made, I’m seeing 5 Tbl of curry powder in the recipe. Is that still correct?
michael H. July 2, 2019
thank you for sharing! I love this topic. Understanding broken sauces are just as important as emulsified. i haven't made the recipe but it looks perfect.
Abdul N. July 2, 2019
Bro, Ayam masak lemak not meant fat cooked chicken, it means chicken cooked in coconut gravy.