Ayam Masak Merah (Chicken in Spicy Tomato Sauce)

Friday, 9 August 2013

This post was first published at Munch Ministry as a contribution to a National Day 2013 Special.


When my family migrated to Singapore some 30 years ago, our first home here was at First Street, off Siglap Road. We were warmly welcomed by many Malay and Peranakan families along both sides of the street where we lived, perhaps due to the fact that we barely spoke English, and could communicate with them easily in Malay.

Back then, the community spirit was also still strong, and even though we led our own lives, neighbours still made an effort to greet one another and share food or desserts when there are major festivals or occasions. I was introduced to a variety of Malay dishes, and missed home more when our Peranakan neighbours shared their cuisine with us because there are striking similarities between the Nonya and Indonesian cuisine.

One of the earliest memories I have of food as introduced to me 'in Singapore' is Ayam Masak Merah, which is a quintessential Malay dish which (I was told) is usually made during special occasions such as birthdays or Hari Raya celebrations. In Indonesia, we have an almost similar dish called the Ayam Bumbu Bali, which basically uses the same ingredients apart from the chicken being grilled instead of fried, and the addition of sweet soya sauce (kicap manis).

Since this year's 48th National Day coincides with Hari Raya Puasa, I thought that this will be a perfect dish to showcase. The ingredients can be made in advance and the chicken pre-fried prior to the main cooking process, which makes this dish quick and convenient to prepare for a party, even if you have plenty of guests coming by.


Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Serves: 4


  • 1 kg chicken parts (to your preference)
  • 2 nos. red chilli
  • 2 bulbs of red onions (shallots)
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • 4 cm of ginger, sliced
  • 2 cm of galangal (lengkuas), sliced
  • 3 stalks of lemongrass
  • 4 nos. star anise
  • 2 nos. cinnamon sticks
  • 3 whole tomatoes, quartered.
  • 1 cup tomato paste
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 1 tbs Sugar
  • Salt (to taste)
  • 2 cups oil for frying

Red chilli, galangal, ginger, cinnamon sticks, star anise, shallots, garlic and lemongrass


1. Season the chicken parts with salt and coat lightly with cornflour. I use only the upper thighs because the family doesn't really fancy other parts of the chicken!

2. Heat oil and deep-fry the chicken on medium heat till it turns a light golden brown. The larger the parts, the longer it takes to cook thoroughly. Take care not to overheat the oil, otherwise the chicken will burn on the outside. Drain well after frying.

Leave 1/2 a cup of oil in the wok.

3. Meanwhile, in a food processor, blend the chilli, garlic, shallots, sliced galangal, ginger and lemongrass till you get a paste.

4. Sauté cinammon stick and star anise until fragrant on high heat, and then add the blended paste. Lower the heat and simmer (take care to keep stir-frying the paste, otherwise it will burn) until fragrant. When the oil 'separates' from the paste, add in the chicken.

5. Add in the tomatoes, tomato paste and coconut milk. Sugar and salt to taste. Simmer till sauce thickens and reduces to half, taking care to stir the chicken around occasionally.

Serve hot with white rice, and belinjo crackers.

This remains one of my favourite local dishes till now. There's just something about the cacophony of spices infused with a blend of sweet, sour and spicy flavours that jolts the senses, and brings back my earliest memories of Singapore. Best eaten with steamed white rice, this dish is a perfect marriage of red and white.

Happy Birthday, Singapore.

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