Chicken in Spicy Tomato Sauce (Ayam Masak Merah)
Enjoy this delectable Malaysian dish of fried chicken in spicy tomato sauce, ayam masak merah, which literally translated, means ‘chicken cooked red’. Prepared with spices, fresh ingredients and pantry staples like tomato puree and coconut milk, it’s deliciously sweetish, savoury, and tangy.
It’s been a year! Omg, I didn’t plan on this long hiatus from the blog, you guys, but my oh my, did the travel bug bite!
Still, the saying there’s no place like home rings so true for me. After practically living out of a luggage for close to four months this year, I’m just happy to be among my usual comforts, back to this creative space bringing you my latest, tested and tried recipes.
You all know how I absolutely love dishing out heritage food, and the one I’m sharing the recipe for today has long been on my to-do list.
This Malaysian and Indonesian culinary dish that we call ayam masak merah in Malay, literally translates as ‘chicken cooked red’ or ‘chicken in red sauce’.
I realise this in itself doesn’t say much about what this dish is really all about. So, I’m referring to it as ‘chicken in spicy tomato sauce’ for clarity and simplicity. You’ll get the immediate impression that it’s tongue-tingling and tomato-ey!
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Malaysian chicken in spicy tomato sauce starts with chicken that’s lightly dusted with turmeric and salt for a fresh light coating.
The meat is deep-fried until half cooked, and then added to the spicy tomato sauce. The chicken stews gently till tender as the sauce reduces, transforming into this thick, saucy, and incredibly savoury one-dish meal.
Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? I’m here to show you it really is!
What’s in the signature red sauce?
This fiery-looking red sauce starts out with a robust spice paste. Typically, the paste includes red chilli peppers, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, shallots, flavoured with aromatics like cinnamon bark, star anise, cloves and cardamom.
If you’re thinking this sounds way too spicy for you, especially if you’re new to Asian curries and stews, don’t worry. This red sauce is mildly spicy, with just a little heat, and is what makes this dish delightfully piquant.
To this fragrant spice paste, tomato puree and coconut milk are stirred in together with the turmeric-coated fried chicken.
The chicken is braised over low heat, with its juices and oils emulsifying with the sauce until it gradually reduces to a thick, luscious, tangy, creamy gravy.
This is when the sauce takes on its most intense and robust flavours! This almost ambrosial red sauce will stimulate all your taste perceptions – it’s sweetish, saltish, sourish, and spicy, all at once!
Which chicken parts are ideal?
You can cook with a whole chicken, cut into 10 to 12 parts, or with 12 skin-on chicken thighs.
I personally recommend cooking with chicken thighs (skin and bone on), though I’ve illustrated this recipe with a whole chicken.
If you wish to use breast meat, you can add it towards the end of the braising process to prevent overcooking, when the sauce has split (more on this down the post) and is almost at the consistency you want.
How to prepare this dish
Step 1. Prepare the chicken.
Have the chicken pieces rinsed and patted dry with paper towels. Then rub turmeric powder and salt all over, coating all the pieces evenly.
Let it sit for about 20 minutes, while you gather the spice ingredients to make the spice paste.
Step 2. Prepare the spice paste.
The spice paste comes together really easily, and if you have a food processor or blender, it will make quick and light work of pulverizing the paste.
All you need to do is peel, slice or chop the spice paste ingredients, and blend together to a smooth and fine paste.
Tip # 1: To use lemongrass, discard the tough, more fibrous outer layers and use only the bottom one-third section. Slice this section thinly, so that it’ll be easier on the blades of your blender or food processor.
Tip #2: Add 1 to 2 tbsps of oil or water (just enough as needed) to help grease the blades and cut through the paste mixture. It’s important to blend to a really smooth and fine texture, so that the cooked sauce will also be smooth and luscious and offer an enjoyable eating experience.
Step 3. Par-cook the chicken.
Fill a wok one-quarter full with oil and heat up till hot. Deep-fry in batches, 5 to 6 pieces at a time, for 2 to 3 minutes only.
You’ll want to just lightly brown the pieces and par-cook the meat. Set aside. Repeat with the second batch.
Step 4. Cook the spice paste.
Drain the wok of most of the oil, leaving behind 4 tbsps. With the oil still hot, and the heat reduced to a low, fry the cinnamon bark, star anise, cloves and cardamom pods for 15 to 20 seconds, or until fragrant.
Add the spice paste, sugar and salt, and fry until the paste cooks through and reduces to a slightly clumpy, darker paste.
Stir regularly to avoid burning the paste, and if it gets too dry, add a tablespoon or two of oil.
Tip #3: Spice pastes need to cook slowly. It imparts tremendous flavours if cooked long enough to fully caramelize. This can take 8 to 10 mins or longer, depending on the heat level.
Once the paste starts to stick together in clumps, has an oily sheen, and traces of oil start to froth and bubble around the edge of the paste, it’s ready for the next step in your cooking.
Step 5. Add the wet sauce ingredients and fried chicken pieces.
Stir in the tomato puree, ketchup, coconut milk and water. Increase the heat to high, and bring the sauce to a gentle boil.
Then reduce the heat, to keep the sauce at a gentle simmer. Continue to cook until it reduces by half. This sauce can spit and spurt quite vigorously, so have an apron on.
You may also be in for some mess on your stove. But most importantly, be careful when you give it the occasional stir!
The flavours of the spice paste and aromatics infuse beautifully. Commercially produced tomato sauces are typically flavoured with herbs and spices, for e.g. with garlic and herbs, basil, garlic mushroom, etc.
Tomato sauces also tend to be thinner in consistency, and chunkier. Pure, unflavoured tomato sauces can be used in place of puree in this recipe.
Tomato puree versus tomato sauce
I almost always use canned tomato puree because it has a thicker consistency and a somewhat bland, but pure tomato flavour.
If you want the tomato flavour to be more intense, use a full can of tomato sauce (400 ml) and add 2 to 3 tbsp tomato paste (in addition to, or in place of ketchup, to your taste), and reduce the amount of water by half.
Once the sauce has reduced by half, stir in the half-cooked chicken pieces. Be sure to include all the oils and drippings – these add flavour too!
Step 6. Simmer until the sauce splits – ‘pecah minyak’
Let the sauce reduce further until it splits, a culinary term that is referred to as ‘pecah minyak‘ or ‘breaking the oil’.
‘Pecah minyak‘ is a stage of cooking that’s reached when the oil splits or separates from the sauce. This is actually desirable!
This is what gives rise to those characteristic pools of flavoured oil floating on the surface of these gravies. It’s what makes your curries or stews glisten and shine, whetting the appetites of anyone who lays eyes on it!
Lastly, stir in the peas, palm sugar and salt, and cook for a few more minutes till just softened, then turn off the heat. Dish out immediately and garnish lavishly with chopped parsley or coriander.
Chicken in spicy tomato sauce is best enjoyed served hot with steamed rice, or traditionally, with tomato rice.
Don’t worry about leftovers, if you even have any! It will taste even more incredible the next day, guaranteed! Keep any leftovers in an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator and consume within 3 days.
So if you’re planning a chicken dish on your family table any time soon, I do hope you’ll try this. You’ll be so pleased you did!
As always, I’d love to hear how you prepared this. Even better, tell me how you tweaked it to suit your brood of food eaters. And if you’re on Instagram, do share your photos and stories by tagging #foodelicacy or @foodelicacy so I can see!
Before you go, you might enjoy these other chicken recipe ideas – why not have a peek?
- Braised Chicken in Oyster Sauce
- Braised Chicken with Potatoes
- Taiwanese Three Cup Chicken
- Kapitan Soy Sauce Chicken
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- 12 chicken thighs OR a whole chicken chopped into 12 pieces
- 1 tbsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 three-inch cinnamon bark
- 2 whole star anise
- 5 cloves
- 3 green cardamom pods
- ¼ cup peas frozen or canned
For the spice paste:
- 6 large red chillies
- 2 bird's eye chilli OR substitute with 1 tbsp chilli powder (optional)
- 6 small shallots or 3 large
- 6 garlic cloves
- 1 thumb-length ginger knob
- 3 lemon grass stalks
- 1 ½ tbsp sugar to taste
- 1 tsp salt to taste
For the sauce:
- 200 ml canned tomato puree OR 400 ml canned tomato sauce
- 200 ml thick coconut milk OR 400 ml canned coconut milk
- 250 ml water
- 2 – 3 tbsp ketchup to taste
- 1 – 2 tbsp palm sugar or light brown sugar to taste
- ½ tsp salt to taste
- Some cilantro or parsely finely chopped
Prepare the chicken:
- Wash chicken pieces drain and pat dry with paper towels. Rub all over with ground turmeric and salt until evenly coated. Set aside.
Prepare the spice paste:
- To use lemongrass: Cut the bottom root portion off the base. Slice the bottom one-third (3-inch) section only, discard the rest. Slice at an angle,and as thinly as possible.
- Roughly chop up red chilli peppers and bird’s eye chillies (or substitute bird’s eye chillies with 1 tbsp chilli powder). Peel and roughly chop shallots, garlic and ginger.
- In a food processor, blend the spice ingredients until you get the paste as smooth and fine-textured as possible. Add 1 to 2 tbsps oil or water (use more or less as needed) to help the blades cut into the mix. Set aside.
- Separately, prepare the cinnamon bark, star anise, cloves and cardamom pods.
Par-cook the chicken:
- Fill a wok or deep skillet one-quarter full with oil and heat up over medium heat until hot. Fry the chicken pieces in batches, 5 to 6 pieces at a time. Par-fry for 2 minutes, until the pieces are lightly browned and half-cooked. Set aside.
Cook the spice paste and sauce:
- In the same wok, drain most of the oil, leaving behind 4 tbsps. With the oil still hot, and the heat reduced to low, put in the cinnamon bark, star anise, cloves and cardamom pods. Fry for 15 to 20 seconds, or until fragrant.
- Pour in the blended spice paste, sugar, salt, and stir frequently to prevent the paste from burning. If it gets too dry, add an additional 1 to 2 tbsp of oil. Once the paste starts to stick or clump together, has an oily sheen, and oil froths or bubbles around the edges, it is ready for the next step.
- Stir in the tomato puree, coconut milk, ketchup, and water. Increase the heat and bring the sauce to a gentle oil. The reduce the heat slightly, to keep the sauce at a gentle simmer. Let the sauce reduce by almost half. Caution: This sauce can spit and spurt quite vigorously, so have an apron on and be careful when you give it the occasional stir.)
- Put in the chicken pieces, including the oils and drippings, and stir to evenly coat all over with the sauce. Let the chicken braise gently. Continue to let sauce reduce until ‘pecah minyak’, that is, the oil splits. This is when oil begins to separate from the sauce, forming beads or pools on the surface (read notes below). The end consistency of the sauce should be thick and pasty.
- Stir in the peas, palm sugar (or light brown sugar) and salt, and cook for a few more minutes till just softened. Do a taste test and add more sugar or salt, to taste. Turn off the heat. Dish out immediately into a serving dish, and garnish lavishly with chopped cilantro or parsley.