When I told my stepmother, "Ayam Masak Merah," I remember her going through her 'recipe book' in which she had amassed a collection of recipes cut out from newspapers and magazines, neatly glued onto the lined pages. She had asked me what I wanted to eat for lunch, or dinner, so she would have an idea of what to cook that day.
The first thought that came to my mind was a chicken dish that is often served at Malay weddings. Even though Malaysia is a tropical country, with only monsoons as a variation for its hot, humid, and sunny season, I have to say that it teems with more than enough seasons to occupy everyone's time. There is Durian season. Rambutan season. Manggis season. Circumcision season. Khatam Quran season. Then there is the wedding season. Wedding seasons require you to attend wedding feasts after wedding feasts, which to single hungry people, can mean days of free lunch. But to a teenager who just wanted to be left alone at home, it meant social torture.
Sometimes there are so many weddings going on on the same day that you can just drive by a neighborhood and attend two separate wedding feasts one after the other thereby saving yourself some lunch money. Of course, if you have no shame at all, you can blatantly attend a wedding feast for the sake of free lunch without even being invited. I don't think you will be kicked out.
Growing up, I attended my fair share of wedding feasts. My father would drag us each time there was one. I never could escape them. I deemed (notice the past tense?) them dull, fit only for adults who have nothing better to do than eat and make small talk. However, one particular wedding feast actually made the cut as the 'Most Memorable Wedding Feast' to a sulky, moody teenage hormone-raged me.
The wedding feast was held at one of the many huge halls in the Istana Budaya (if my memory serves me correctly, I believe this was where it happened), and that night, there was more than one wedding going on. We entered a hall that was filling up with invited guests, and as invited guests ourselves, we found ourselves a table and seated ourselves. As we turned left and right and smiled at strangers, my father realized with chagrin that he didn't know the bride and groom or their parents. Grinning, almost laughing, he turned to us and whispered that we were at the wrong wedding. I think I remember my stepmother giggling in return, and slowly, without attracting too much attention, we got up and made our way to the entrance and slipped out. I doubt we did it without attracting too much attention though, as who would not notice a family of five getting up from the table and leaving the table all at the same time. No family goes to the restroom together. No, I don't think so.
Once out of earshot, we burst into laughter. Yes, even the sullen teenager (moi). That was my best wedding feast ever! Of course, we ended up in the right room a few searching minutes later, which ended the fun immediately, though we couldn't stop giggling for quite some time.
The Ayam Masak Merah that came to mind when my stepmother asked me what I wanted her to cook for lunch was a plate of moist chicken coated in deep red, almost brown glistening thick sauce, garnished with thickly sliced rings of white onions. The chicken parts, though moist, are slightly crispy or toughened on the outside, thanks to the deep frying, and this perfectly enables the thick and viscous sauce to cling and adhere to them. The sauce is mostly sweet, with some hint of pungency from the chilli. Eaten with Nasi Minyak (rice cooked in with ghee), Ayam Masak Merah is a typical chicken dish usually made for special occasions such as weddings and Eids.
Wedding feasts were the only occasions in which I had the opportunity to eat Ayam Masak Merah, the properly made one that is. The one my stepmother ended up making was quite far from what I had in mind, but then again, so are my many versions of Ayam Masak Merah. To this day, I have not quite recreated or tasted a homemade Ayam Masak Merah that holds the top spot in my memory of great food.
I have made so many versions of Ayam Masak Merah throughout the years, but I have never bothered to jot down the ingredients, much less their measurements, as I have started to do recently. This one though, I did take measurements, but alas, was whipped up with whatever ingredients I had in my kitchen pantry, which has undergone some massive decluttering.
From the list of ingredients below, it may look more like a recipe for Sweet and Sour Chicken than Ayam Masak Merah. Tomato puree is usually a main ingredient in Ayam Masak Merah, which I didn't have, so I used tomato ketchup instead. A friend told me that she knows of a Malaysian sister who would sneak in a few tablespoons of smooth peanut butter in her Ayam Masak Merah, and her Ayam Masak Merah always tasted great. That said, there can be many versions of Ayam Masak Merah. In this particular version of mine (and I say this because I do believe I have other versions which do not seem to come to mind right now), I have sprinkled it with black cumin seeds towards the end of cooking for a personal touch.
Ayam Masak Merah
Prepping the chicken:
10 chicken drumsticks/ equivalent amount of chicken parts, cut up
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon turmeric
1-2 tablespoons canola oil
Blend to a fairly smooth paste:
5 cloves garlic
1 medium - large onion, cut into chunks
1 stalk lemongrass, bottom half cut into 1-2 inch pieces
1 1/2 - 2 tablespoons chilli paste
3 tablespoons tomato ketchup
2 tablespoons Yeo's Sweet Chilli Sauce
To make the sauce:
3 - 5 tablespoons canola/vegetable oil
1 bruised stalk lemongrass (only bottom half)
1 cinnamon stick, broken
3 whole cloves
3 cardamom pods
3 star anise
salt to taste
1 teaspoon black cumin seeds
1. Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit
Prepping the chicken:
2. Sprinkle chicken pieces with turmeric and salt,making sure they're evenly coated
3. Arrange chicken drumsticks on a pan lined with aluminum foil, and brush them with oil
4. Bake uncovered until chicken are cooked (juice is clear, and not pinkish or bloody), and somewhat crispy/slightly browned on the outside
To make the sauce:
5. In a wok, or a wide shallow pan, heat the 3 -5 tablespoons of canola oil and toss in the blended paste with the bruised lemongrass stalk
6. Add in the whole spices and keep stirring on medium - medium high heat for about 5 - 10 minutes. Add salt to taste.
7. Add in the baked chicken and stir to coat the chicken pieces with the cooked sauce
8. Sprinkle black cumin seeds, and serve with steaming white rice and an accompanying dish of freshly cooked or raw vegetables
Serves 5 -6 (with second helpings)
- Traditionally, the chicken pieces are deep fried, but for health reasons, not to mention avoiding the hassle of deep frying (which I really abhor), I bake them uncovered instead. I have found that this produces equally moist chicken pieces that are healthy and equally crispy on the outside
- Instead of brushing the chicken pieces with oil, as instructed in the recipe above, I have adopted a lazy method of doing this, which you may adopt as well, if you wish. I merely pour about the same amount of oil on the aluminum foil-lined tray/pan, and slip slap the chicken pieces in the oil, turning them over so all sides are coated with the oil, and spread the oil evenly in the pan using the chicken drumstick as my 'brush'. No need to wash a brush and an extra bowl. Easier clean up!
- You may garnish with fresh green chillies split lengthwise, slices of green onions, and quartered tomatoes that are tossed together with the baked chicken in Step 7, resulting in the photo below. This version was made for an MSA (Muslim Student Association) Iftar years back. I made two big aluminum tray of it. Practically cooked the whole day, baked the chicken pieces in batches before coating them with the cooked sauce.
Here is a version of Ayam Masak Merah on Hooked On Heat.
More information on Malay weddings on Pahang-Delights.
A video on how to make another version of Ayam Masak Merah.