There was a kerfuffle this week in Singapore that was triggered off by a NYTcooking video of someone purportedly cooking “Singapore Curry”. Netizens were up in arms because the recipe added odd ingredients like lime juice and pandan leaves and the gravy was a lackluster watery effort. Turns out it was an ill-conceived effort of cultural appropriation to use a Sri Lankan-style curry and label it “Singapore Curry”.
The last time I looked the infamous Instagram video had been viewed 1.1 million times…I suspect 85% of these were indignant Singaporeans up in arms and ready to defend their version of curry. Although Singapore is a true melting pot of different cuisines and curries range from Nonya to Malay to Indian to tamer Chinese versions, there is an almost universal understanding that the curry must be thick, full of spices and extremely aromatic. Typically curry chicken would be available in hawker centers and served with rice or a fresh baguette to mop up the fiery orange gravy. When cooking at home, most Singaporeans (me included) are often quite lazy and we usually resort to premix packets of curry paste available in the supermarket. But the end of last year I decided to get myself a proper blender to make rempah. Actually it was triggered because my little hand blender that I had used for years could not manage the herbs and spices I needed for a thick thunder tea herb paste. Anyway with the new blender I’ve been gently hinting to my helper that we can make our own rempah and up our curry game!
Making rempah (spice paste) is a breeze for the modern “auntie”. I have a spice grinder for whole spices as well as a blender for making the spice paste. My kitchen also has a traditional stone mortar but it’s too much work to pound spices compared to the push of a button in our appliances. A good rempah is an absolute must when making local curries. And making it fresh allows you to toast the spices to accentuate the flavors. The rempah also needs to be fried so as to caramelize the chopped shallots and bring out a smoky sweet fragrance. The rempah can actually be made beforehand and frozen; it just needs to be fried before adding the other curry ingredients.
Everyone has their own favorite spice blend; what I put in this recipe is a little of everything. I did use only tiny amounts of ground cloves and nutmeg because I have a personal preference not to have these strong flavors overwhelming the curry. I also added kaffir lime leaves (limau purut leaves) as well as curry leaves because I happen to have a couple of pots of these herbs. I adore these leaves because the curry is even more fragrant with they are added into the gravy, but if you can’t get a hold of these you can do without them. Also if you do buy curry leaves or kaffir lime leaves and have too much left over, one trick is to wrap the leaves in a piece of kitchen towel and put into a ziplock bag and freeze – the leaves keep really well.
One other thing about local chicken curry – the chicken has to be chopped up. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the NYTcooking video where the entire drumstick and thigh was dunked into the watery mess. Asian cooks are usually quite sensitive to the fact that it’s hard to eat curry when the chicken is not cut up properly. The guest should not be made to work too hard to manipulate entire joints of meat.
I don’t usually add potatoes into the curry – this is to minimize the carbs in the dish. I had the curry with cauliflower rice and it was so good I really wished I had tummy space for more!
Singapore Curry Chicken
- Rempah (Spice paste)
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 2 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tsp cinnamon powder
- 1/4 tsp ground cloves
- 1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
- 12 shallots, peeled
- 3 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 4 candlenuts
- 1 inch knob of turmeric, peeled
- 2 inch knob of ginger, peeled and grated
- 10 dried chillis, cut into 1 inch pieces and soaked in hot water
- 2 tbsp oil
- 1 onion, peeled and cut into large chunks
- 1 chicken, cut into pieces
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 stems of lemongrass, trimmed and bruised
- 2 kaffir lime leaves
- 1 sprig of curry leaves
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1.5 cups chicken stock
- 2 tbsp oil
- Soak the dried chilli in hot water for 20 minutes or when softened.
- In a dry non-stick pan, toast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds and fennel seeds for 1-2 minutes. Take off the heat and set aside.
- Blend the toasted spices, ground cinnamon and nutmeg, shallots, garlic, turmeric, ginger, candlenuts, soaked chilies, and oil, blending in pulses.
- Heat up 2 tbsp oil in a wok over medium heat. Fry the rempah for 3 – 5 minutes (the rempah is cooked when it has browned). Add the onions and lemongrass and stir fry another minute. Add the chicken and fry for another 3 minutes, ensuring the rempah coats the chicken pieces.
- Add the coconut milk, chicken stock curry leaves and kaffir lime leaves and salt. Simmer for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Serve hot with cauliflower rice.