Kapitan chicken is one of the unique breeds in the curry family.
Kapitan chicken (Ayam Kapitan in Malay) is a Malaysian curry, the amalgamation of the diverse array of Malay, Chinese, and Indian eating cultures.
The unique flavor of this Nyonya chicken dish results from the complex interplay of a myriad of herbs and spices used by the Malays and Chinese. It is the least spicy Malaysian curry, which is ideal for anyone unable to bear the heat from other fiercely hot curries.
So you will expect to savor a pot of milder curry with only half the quantity of chili with fresh ingredients like turmeric, shrimp paste, palm sugar, and tamarind.
Before we drill down to the detail of how to prepare it, take a look at the legend and the history behind Kapitan chicken.
The legend of Kapitan Chicken
The name Kapitan Chicken (Captain’s chicken) is derived from a fun legend back in the British colony time in Malaysia.
According to Malaysian history, legend has it a Chinese chef on a ship owned by the British was eager to learn how to cook the local cuisine. One day, he saw a Malay woman preparing a stewed chicken dish in the kitchen with an unfamiliar, exotic flavor. He asked the woman if she was willing to share her recipe, and she obliged.
The woman told him it was a chicken curry dish and graciously showed him the cooking method.
Upon returning to his kitchen, he realized that it could be too spicy for the British captain and the crew members. He improvised the recipe by drastically reduced the spiciness and enhanced with some Chinese ingredients.
His toned-down version of the curry received raved reviews from the captain and his guests.
When the captain asked him what the name of this dish was, he was caught off guard by murmuring, “Ayam Kapitan,” which means captain’s chicken in Malay. The name has since stuck with this dish among the locals until today.
The fundamental characteristic of Kapitan curry (Malay: Kari Kapitan) is the use of traditional Malay herbs and local spices with a touch of Chinese technique.
This Malaysian food has a distinct Nyonya flavor as a result of the combination of lemongrass, galangal (a type of ginger, also all blue ginger), turmeric ( the Chinese call it yellow ginger ), coconut milk, and belacan (local shrimp paste).
Step 1- Prepare the chicken for stewing
Cut the chicken into large chunks, bone-in and skin-on. The chicken pieces should be marinated with ground turmeric, salt, and vegetable oil. You can purchase the whole chicken and cut it into large chunks. or only use chicken thighs or chicken breasts.
Marinating the meat before stewing is a common practice among the Chinese to let the flavor penetrate the meat. This technique ensures the flavor is locked inside the chicken after prolonged stewing.
You can use ALL the salt required for the recipe to marinate the chicken. The chicken will not be too salty as some salt will eventually dissolve into the stewing liquid. This method works well because it considers salt loss due to stewing.
Marinate for a few hours or at least 30 minutes.
Use a disposable hand glove when you marinade the chicken, as the turmeric will leave a yellow stain on your hand.
Deep-fry the chicken chunks until the skin turns brown, which will take a minute or two in the hot oil at 190°C/375°F. Deep-frying creates the aroma through the Maillard reaction.
Remove the chicken chunks from the oil once it turns brown. It does not matter if they are still half-cooked, as we will continue cooking the chicken with the curry paste and the coconut milk for another thirty minutes.
Step 2- Prepare the ingredients for the curry paste.
The plethora of herbs and spices in this Nyonya chicken recipe defines the unmistakable flavor and aroma of Kapitan Chicken curry.
Here is the list of the ingredients for this Malaysian curry paste. You should be familiar with most of them, but some can be considered exotic to you.
Onions and garlic
Onions and garlic are the base ingredients of the paste. We use red onions to make the curry but yellow onions are equally good.
Remove the skin of the onions and quarter them. You can leave the garlic as the whole clove without the skin. Both are soft to be blended effortlessly.
Red chili and dry chili
Kapitan Chicken requires a small number of chili compared to other curries. That is why it is so popular among the Malaysian Chinese, who are not used to the fiercely hot Malay dishes. I have another typical Malaysian curry chicken recipe that requires double the number of chilies.
The type of chili I used is the local red Serrano chilies. If you can’t get it, use any Serrano chilies you can find. You need to use chilies with similar hotness and flavor as the Serrano to bring out the authentic taste of chicken curry kapitan. Therefore, green chili, bird’s eye chili, and capsicum (bell pepper) will never be a substitute.
You can reduce the number of chilies. Since you want the flavor, remove all the seeds instead of reducing the number to lessen the hotness. Use an equal portion of the dry and fresh chilies. Fresh chilies will give the dish the flavor of freshness, while dry chilies will add fiery hotness to the recipe.
Galangal is used in almost every version of Malaysian curry paste.
Galangal is much harder than ginger and lemongrass. Therefore, the food processor may not blend the large pieces effectively into a paste.
You can either finely dice it or cut it into thin slices so that it can be blended well with the softer ingredients. The curry will taste good if it is smooth and without the remnant of the large pieces of galangal.
Lemongrass is relatively easier to blend compared to galangal. Discard the green section and use only the white section. Cut the white section into short pieces. Most household blenders can handle lemongrass with ease.
You can also bash the lemongrass and stew it with the chicken to extract its flavor. The bashed lemongrass should be decarded before serving. I do this in my rendang recipe, but I will now include the lemongrass in the curry paste.
Candlenuts do not give much flavor. The primary purpose is to thicken the gravy (it works pretty similar to potatoes). You may use cashew nuts as a substitute if candlenuts are not available.
Candlenuts are not that hard. You can add the candlenuts to the food processor along with other ingredients. You can also crush them and add them to the stew directly.
Turmeric is also called ‘yellow ginger’ in Chinese.
It has an intense yellow color that can stain your hand. Use a pair of disposable gloves when you cut the turmeric. It can stain your fingers as well as any plasticware. Use ceramic or glassware whenever you want to marinate the chicken with turmeric.
Fresh turmeric is always the better choice. However, since you need to use ground turmeric to marinate the chicken, you may want to use it for the whole recipe. Use only half of the amount if you decide to use turmeric powder.
Most Nyonya food (a hybrid of Malay and Chinese cuisine) includes turmeric, and this Nyonya curry is no exception.
Belacan is a shrimp paste commonly used in Malay cuisine.
Belacan is salty with an intense umami flavor. A small amount is sufficient not to overpower other spices’ flavors.
Some tips when you make the curry paste
Who doesn’t know how to blend spices? However, there are a few points to note as we are working on a few ingredients with different degrees of hardness and shape.
Here are the key points:
- Cut the galangal into small pieces before blending to avoid overexerting the food processor.
- Soak the dry chilies in hot water for about 15 minutes or until it is soft, and cut them into short pieces.
- Remove the seeds from the red chilies. Cut them into short pieces.
- Remove the outer layer of the lemongrass, discard the green section and use the bulb only, which is white. Cut the white section of the lemongrass into short sections.
- Cut the onions into large pieces, and leave the whole clove of garlic.
- Cut the turmeric into slices (use your glove ). Drop a piece of belacan and the candlenuts into the blender.
- Blend these items until homogeneous and become a fine paste. After cooking, you may experience some small pieces of galangal and lemongrass remaining in the gravy if you do not blend the paste until it is smooth enough.
It is different from the Malay and Indian curry as it is not only cooked with less chili, but the common herbs in Indian curries, such as cumin, fenugreek, and fennel, are hardly used. Instead, belacan and turmeric are added in a small amount with the abundance of coconut milk.
Step 3- Prepare the remaining ingredients for Kapitan Chicken.
I can get freshly squeezed coconut milk on demand at the market. Fresh coconut milk tastes better and has a better aroma than the canned version. But if it is unavailable, use the canned or boxed version as the alternative. Check the content of the coconut milk. It should have at least twenty percent of fat.
Add the coconut milk to the sauteed curry paste to form a thin gravy. Add the chicken and cook for 30 minutes or until the chicken chunks are cooked thoroughly. You may want to add some water if it is too dry.
You can substitute half of the coconut milk with plain yogurt. Some people want to be healthier and prefer to use less coconut milk. I use coconut milk solely as this is the original way to prepare Kapitan Chicken.
Kaffir lime leaf
There is NO substitute for the aroma of kaffir lime leaves. You have to omit it if not available. If you have it, cook it with the chicken to extract the flavor.
You can also use kaffir lime leaves to garnish the chicken. To do this, stack up a few pieces of the leaves, roll them up tightly, and cut them into fine strips. Sprinkle some of them on the chicken when served.
A small amount of tamarind adds a subtle sour note to the curry. You can use tamarind concentrate (or tamarind paste) as a substitute for fresh tamarind pulp.
Add some warm water to the tamarind pulp and let the pulp dissolve into the water. Set aside for ten minutes, and then filter the pulp and seeds away. Use only the extracted juice.
Another substitute is Assam Keping (also called Assam Jawa). We can get it anywhere in Malaysia and Indonesia. However, it may be hard to get outside the South-East Asia region.
Palm sugar is derived from the coconut palm flower’s sap. It is close to brown sugar but has a more intense caramel flavor. It usually sells as a small cylinder block about ten-centimeter height.
Shave off the required amount of palm sugar from the cylinder block with a knife and add to the stew. It helps to balance the sour flavor of tamarind. You can use brown sugar as a substitute.
Step 4- Put it all together and cook.
The cooking part of this recipe is simple once you have all the ingredients ready.
- Saute the curry paste with some vegetable oil in a wok over medium heat until it turns aromatic. It may take five to ten minutes. By then, the red chili oil will separate from the paste.
- Add the coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, and palm sugar to form a thin sauce.
- Add the chicken that has been deep-fried into the curry paste. Stew over low heat for about 20 minutes or until the chicken chunks are cooked thoroughly.
- Dish out and serve. Garnish with cut red chilies, lime juice, and thin strips of kaffir lime leaves. It is best to serve with white rice or roti jala.
The Kapitan Chicken Recipe
- 1 kg chicken, bone-in, skin-on, large chunks
- 1/2 tablespoon ground turmeric
- 4 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoons vegetable oil
- 150 g onions
- 2 cloves garlic
- 10 g ginger
- 20 g galangal
- 10 g turmeric
- 4 candlenuts
- 65 g lemongrass, weight for white section only
- 4 dry red chili, soak in water until soft
- 40 g red chili, (serrano chili)
- 4 g belacan
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 250 g coconut milk
- 1 tomato, medium size
- 1/2 tablespoon tamarind paste
- 3 kaffir lime leaves
- 2 teaspoon palm sugar
- fried shallots
- kaffir lime leaves, finely slices
- red chilies, cut into small pieces
- Wash and cut the chicken into large pieces (bone-in, skin-on)
- Marinate the chicken with turmeric powder, salt, and vegetable oil Stand for at least 30 minutes or longer.
- Deep fry the chicken pieces until the skin turns brown. Remove and set aside.
- Cut all the ingredients in (B) into small pieces. Blend until it forms a homogeneous paste with a food processor.
- Finely chop one medium size tomato.
- Saute the curry paste in a wok until fragrant.
- Add the chicken, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, tamarind juice, tomatoes and palm sugar into the wok.
- Simmer over low heat for 20 minutes or until the chicken is fully cooked
- Dish out and garnish with fried shallots, red chilies and finely sliced kaffir lime leaves,
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Amount Per Serving: Calories: 1459Total Fat: 96gSaturated Fat: 33gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 49gCholesterol: 338mgSodium: 4324mgCarbohydrates: 50gFiber: 5gSugar: 12gProtein: 100g
This data was provided and calculated by Nutritionix on 3/22/2019