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
- Prep time 15 minutes
- Cook time 45 minutes
- Serves 4 to 6
(2-inch) piece ginger
dried red chiles
Thai red chiles, for extra spice (optional)
Malaysian curry powder (usually labelled "meat curry powder"), I use Baba's or Alagappa's
chile powder, plus more to taste
10 to 15
2 1/2 pounds
bone-in chicken thighs and drumsticks
water, or enough to cover chicken
medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 1/2 cups
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.