theboywhoatetheworld cooks: Curry Kapitan
Curry Kapitan is easily my favourite Malaysian curry of them all. In my opinion, no dish better epitomizes the marriage between Chinese and Malay influences better than this Penang Nyonya icon. Richer, thicker and drier than your usual chicken curry, I love the incredible balance of flavours from the chillies, lemongrass, galangal and turmeric. Toasted ‘belacan’ (fermented shrimp paste) – one of the cornerstones of Nyonya cuisine – is also typically added to the curry paste, giving the dish a body and depth of flavour like no other. There are a variety of colourful and conflicting accounts out there regarding the origins of this dish. One of the more humorous versions that I came across in a Penang heritage book claims the dish was first created by a cook aboard a ship, who when asked what was for dinner that evening by his captain replied “Curry, Kapitan!”. Other accounts suggest that the dish has its roots from Malaya’s colonial days. The title ‘Kapitan’ was first introduced by the Portuguese in 16th century Malacca to denote a local community leader at the time. The role of the local ‘Kapitan’ in the key straits towns of Penang, Malacca and Singapore continued all the way through to 20th century Malaya under British rule. How the curry met the Kapitan though is still not entirely clear to me. Perhaps it was the favourite curry of one of the prominent ‘Kapitans’ at the time? Or maybe Nyonya households gave the dish its title to recognize it as the lead dish of the dinner table. Whatever the case, that ship’s cook or Peranakan grandma who founded this dish deserves our eternal gratitude.
The recipe below is one I’ve transcribed from years of watching my godma cook this up (she’s the old school type that has never referred to a recipe in her life, cooking purely by feel) and multiple attempts to perfect this dish myself. Many Curry Kapitan recipes often call for the addition of coconut milk – an ingredient which is omitted from my family’s recipe. Frankly, all coconut milk does is temper the flavours you’ve worked so hard to create in the first place. I do however like to add a small amount of tomato puree to my curry paste – although this isn’t traditional, I find it gives the dish a deeper colour and a more rounded sweetness.
Have a go!
My Curry Kapitan (Photography shot in collaboration with Hugh Johnson)
Ingredients (serves 4-6 people)
- 1 kg chicken pieces (thighs & drumsticks work best)
- 1/2 onion, diced
- 3 kaffir lime leaves (for garnish)
- 3 tablespoons groundnut or vegetable oil
For the blended curry paste (“rempah”):
- 3 large red chillies, deseeded
- 6 dried chillies, deseeded
- 2 stalks of lemongrass, roughly chopped
- 12-15 small shallots, halved for ease of blending
- 1 clove garlic
- 6 candlenuts (a.k.a ‘buah keras’ – use macadamia nuts as an alternative)
- 4 cm length of galangal (thumb-nail size in cross-section)
- 2 cm length of fresh ginger (thumb-nail size in cross-section)
- 2 cm length of fresh turmeric (fresh turmeric is preferable, otherwise 2 tsp of dried turmeric will do)
- 2 tablespoons fermented shrimp paste (‘belacan’), toasted in a dry pan before use
- 1 tablespoon tomato puree
- 1 tablespoons of sugar
For the seasoning:
- Large pinch of salt (to taste)
- 1.5 to 2 tbsp of Brown Sugar (to taste)
- 2 to 3 tbsp of Light Soya Sauce (to taste)
- Juice of 1/2 – 1 lime (to taste)
- Prepare and blend all the curry-paste (‘rempah’) ingredients in a large food processor until it forms a paste. It’s best to blend the lemongrass and candlenuts first before adding the rest to avoid overblending some of the other softer textured ingredients.
- Heat up the oil in a large lidded pot and sauté the ‘rempah’ (curry paste) and chopped onions on a medium-high heat for 8 – 10 minutes until fragrant. Add a tablespoon or 2 of water if it starts to dry, and constantly stir – the aim is to toast the paste without burning it.
- Add the chicken pieces to the fried rempah and continue frying for 3 – 4 minutes until you get some nice colouration on the meat. Add half a cup of water (~100 ml) to loosen the curry paste (it should still retain a relatively thick, coating consistency after you have added the water). Reduce the heat and simmer for 30-35 minutes with the lid on until the chicken is cooked and tender. Stir and turn the chicken pieces over every 10 minutes or so.
- When the chicken is cooked, season with salt, brown sugar, soya sauce and a squeeze of lime juice to taste. Garnish with kaffir lime leaves, crispy shallots and serve with steamed rice.
Aye aye Kapitan.