A classic Malaysian dish of chicken in spicy tomato sauce
5 from 1 vote
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Chicken in Spicy Tomato Sauce

Must-try recipe for a Malaysian/Indonesian dish of fried chicken braised in spicy tomato sauce that's deliciously sweetish, savoury, and tangy.
Course: Chicken, Dinner, Lunch, Main Course, Main Dish, One Pot Meals
Cuisine: Asian, Indonesian, Malaysian
Tags: braised, spicy, tomato sauce
Prep Time: 30 mins
Cook Time: 45 mins
Total Time: 1 hr 15 mins
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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
  • 1/4 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 1/2 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
  • 1/2 tsp salt, to taste

For garnishing:

  • 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.


Best chicken parts to use:
I personally recommend cooking with chicken thighs (skin and bone on), or a whole chicken cut into 10 to 12 pieces. If you wish to use breast meat, only add it towards the end of the braising process to prevent overcooking, when the sauce is almost at the consistency you want, and just starting to separate.
Tomato puree versus Tomato Sauce:
Use canned tomato puree because it has a thicker consistency and a somewhat bland, but pure tomato flavour. 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. 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.
How to cook the spice paste correctly:
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.
Cook the sauce until it splits - 'pecah minyak':
'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
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