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Ayam Masak Merah (Malay-Style Red Chicken Curry)


Ayam Masak Merah (Malay-Style Red Chicken Curry)

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Curries originate in India and have been traveling across to different parts of the world for many thousand of years. Curries come from the South Indian word Kari meaning sauce. As a result of spice trades and immigrations, curries hit all four corners of the globe and create many different versions of curries.

Curries differ greatly in their taste and content, not only between countries but also within countries. For example, the curries of India are different than those of Malaysia and Indonesia.  In India, the curry cuisine in the north is not the same as that in southern India. Malaysia being a multiracial nation, naturally, we have many types of curries! I must say that I am very lucky to be able to have tasted different types of curries since I was little.

Generally, curry is a spicy recipe but the way the types of spices and herbs are used differs considerably from country to country. Not all curries are hot.

In curry dishes, either yoghurt or coconut milk is used. In Malaysia, coconut milk is the most common feature in almost all curry dishes. As our curries have got more influence from Southern India than Northern India. Having said that, ayam masak merah is one of those curry dishes where you don’t have to use coconut milk. Instead, the sauce is mainly made up by tomato, chili paste, and fresh spices.

As a Malaysian-Chinese,  curry is nothing uncommon in our daily meal. Ayam Masak Merah has many names when translated to English. Some have called it as ‘Red Cooked Chicken’, ‘Chicken in Red Chili Sauce’, ‘Chicken in Red Sauce’… I have named it as Malay-Style Red Chicken Curry. Ayam masak merah is a very popular and tasty curry dish amongst all Malaysians across all communities. Ayam masak merah is a typical malay dish that is usually served with tomato rice (nasi tomato) and nasi lemak (coconut scented rice).

I remember when I was little, there was a stall owned by a Malay couple served very good ayam masak merah accompanied with nasi lemak. You have to be there before 8:30am everyday else everything will be sold out!

Remember Ayam Masak Habang, an Indonesian dish prepared by Sefa? Ayam masak habang looks pretty similar to ayam masak merah. There are only a few differences in the ingredients used and a slight different in cooking method. I have not tried to cook ayam masak habang which I think I will soon to find out the difference between two, taste wise. I suspect, these two dishes are somehow kind of related.

Anyway, I want to tell you that there’s one very important principle that you have to remember in using spices when you cook Malay-style curry. Empat sekawan (in Malay) means four friends or four buddies. There are 4 important spices that are used in a lot of curry dishes; they are green cardamoms, star anis, cloves, and cinnamon sticks. So, these are the usual suspects in making curries and they are call empat sekawan (four buddies/friends). It’s a great tip! To all Malaysian readers, Happy Mardeka!

Ayam Masak Merah (Malay-Style Red Chicken Curry)

Prep Time:

Cook Time:



For the Ayam Masak Merah (Malay-Style Red Chicken Curry):

vegetable oil, enough to pan-fry
10 chicken drumsticks/thighs
2 tsp turmeric powder
4 green cardamoms
1 star anise
2 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 red onions, cut into rings
3-4 tomatoes
4 tbsp tomato puree
2 tbsp ketchup
1-2 tbsp dark soya sauce
400ml water
2 tsp sugar
a pinch of salt

Spice paste:
10 shallots
3cm piece ginger
10 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
5-6 dry chillies, deseeded and soaked until softened
3-4 red chillies, deseeded and roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped


1. Coat the chicken with turmeric powder and marinate for about 20-30 minutes. In a wok or deep pan, put the vegetable oil enough to pan fry the chicken. When the oil is hot, fry the chicken in batch until they turn slightly golden brown. Drain and set aside.

2. In a food processor, grind all the spice paste ingredients into a smooth paste. In a pot, put about 3-4 tbsp of oil, put in the ground paste. On a low heat, cook until the oil surfaces the paste.

3. Then, add the cardamoms, star anise, cloves, cinnamon stick, onions and tomatoes, cook until they are soft. Add the tomato puree, tomato ketchup, dark soya sauce, sugar, salt. Adjust seasoning if needed. Mix well. Then, put in water. Bring to boil, then reduce the heat and cover for about 10 minutes.

4. Add in the chicken, mix well to coat the chicken with the sauce. Bring to a slight boil. Then, reduce the heat to low and put the lid on and cook for another 30-35 minutes or when until the sauce has reduced and thicken.

5. Serve with coconut scented rice, nasi tomato (tomato rice), or steamed rice.


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