If you’re keen to try making an authentic Malaysian chicken curry at home, but think you’ll need a lot of unusual ingredients, don’t be put off! You can make a rich and creamy kari ayam with very few uncommon ingredients.
Malaysian food is a wonderful blend of the country’s population, with strong Malay, Chinese and Indian influence in particular. And one of the best examples of this is the traditional Malaysian chicken curry.
Known locally as kari ayam, a Malaysian chicken curry has a strong foundation in what many of us recognise as Indian curries. But the flavour profile is unique, with the inclusion of wonderful additional aromatics. Romain from Glebe Kitchen beautifully describes it:
“Think curry flavours with even more flavours. Coconut milk. Haunting notes from star anise. And lemongrass to really mix things up. Puts a smile on your face and a glow in your stomach.”
And it’s some of these more unusual ingredients that might put you off making a Malaysian chicken curry at home. But don’t be put off. They’re easier to find than they used to be, and there’s only a couple of extras (beyond standard spice rack fare) that you need to make a truly unique and delicious kari ayam.
To figure out what you need for a Malaysian chicken curry I’ve reviewed seventeen recipes for kari ayam. In doing so, I’ve also worked out what you need to make your own Malaysian curry powder. I hope I can convince you give this rich, saucy dish a go, and help you choose a recipe if you do.
Before we get into it though, a few words on authenticity.
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Is it authentic?
Like so many dishes with a long culturally-interwoven heritage, authenticity will depend a lot on where you come from. Different regions, different towns and even different households will often have quite different views of what makes a recipe “authentic”.
So I’m not going to claim that any of these recipes in particular are authentic, or that my overview of what you do and don’t need is authentic either. What I have done though is try to include recipes that use traditional ingredients.
I’ve also avoided “quick and easy” versions that take shortcuts to make the dish more accessible. Some dishes, like spaghetti bolognese or chili, are perfectly suited to being abbreviated for a quick midweek meal, losing little in the translation. But rich, complex dishes like a Malaysian chicken curry deserve the time and effort required to truly bring them to life. Once you’ve made them “properly” a few times, by all means, work out shortcuts that suit you. For now though I want to show the path to a kari ayam that is as close to authentic as possible.
What’s in an “authentic” Malaysian chicken curry?
Amongst these seventeen recipes there are a number of very consistent ingredients:
- Dried chilies
- Star anise
- Curry leaves
- Coconut milk
- Water or chicken stock
- Shallots, garlic and ginger
- and Malaysian curry powder.
Phew! Quite the list of ingredients. And most of the recipes have two or three other ingredients as well.
Don’t be put off though. Major grocery chains are carrying more and more speciality ingredients these days. And if your local doesn’t, they are becoming easier and easier to find on the web. In fact, I could find everything on this list on Amazon. So let’s look at each one in detail.
Chicken (ayam in Malay)
It wouldn’t be a chicken curry without chicken, so all seventeen recipes of course include it.
Bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces are overwhelmingly the most popular, used in all but three of the recipes. The bones and skin add to the richness and flavour of the curry, so most authors argue they are indispensable.
That doesn’t mean you can’t make a Malaysian chicken curry with boneless chicken though. Three of the recipes use thigh, breast or both, chopped into large pieces.
Arguably you could also use boneless cuts in any of the other recipes too. But with either of these approaches you will lose a little something. Without bones and skin the chicken becomes more of a carrier for the other flavours, rather than contributing to the flavour and the texture as it’s meant too. It’s not a show-stopper, but definitely worth careful consideration.
So many of the recipes include potatoes that it may as well be called a Malaysian chicken and potato curry, with only two authors excluding them.
The potatoes have two roles in a kari ayam. They provide a great textural contrast to the chicken, and also contribute to the thickness of the sauce as they shed some starch while they cook. So while you could certainly replace them with other vegetables for texture, you’ll lose the additional thickening they provide. This can of course be achieved in other ways as well.
Thirteen recipes include chilies, and all but one of these uses dried whole or ground chilies.
The role of the chilies is to add heat beyond that provided by the curry powder, and so there’s a lot of variation in how much the authors use. While some use five or less dried chilies, a few use fifteen or more.
Most authors don’t specify what type of chilies they use other than dried red, so you can manage the level of heat with the type of chilies you use as well. In my review of Tunisian harissa paste recipes I go into a lot more detail about varieties and heat levels of dried chilies.
It’s worth noting that the recipes all have you rehydrate your chilies before using them. If you’re wondering why not just use fresh chilies, the reason is that dry chilies provide heat without adding too much moisture.
If you’re wondering which of the ingredients really differentiate a Malaysian chicken curry from an Indian or other type of curry, lemongrass is one of them.
Lemongrass is a thick woody grass with strong citrus aroma and flavour. Its fresh and aromatic character is popular in a number of cuisines including Indian, Thai, Vietnamese and more.
Most of the flavour is in the bottom part of the stalk, and it’s typically used whole in soups and broths or minced in pastes. Both approaches appear amongst these recipes, with thirteen authors using it one way or the other in their curry.
Star anise is much like lemongrass in that it’s popular in a number of Asian cuisines for its aromatic flavour, albeit a very different one – aniseed.
Named for it’s distinctive star-shaped pods, star anise is used whole to add flavour to soups or stews. It’s also used ground in the same way most other powdered spices are used, although it’s not common in a Malaysian curry powder.
Ten recipes use one to three star anise pods in their curry, while another two instead use a small amount of fennel seed. The latter is not a direct replacement for star anise, but does provide the distinctive aniseed flavour.
Another aromatic and flavoursome spice that most people would be familiar with is cinnamon.
Eleven authors add a piece of cinnamon bark to their curries. All but a couple of recipes that use cinnamon also use star anise, a common and very complementary pairing.
It is also a ubiquitous ingredient in a Malaysian curry powder (more on that later).
The leaves of the curry plant are a popular ingredient in Indian cooking, which is likely how they’ve come to be a common ingredient in a Malaysian chicken curry. Twelve of the recipes include everything from six leaves to six sprigs of them.
Belonging to the same family as citrus trees, the flavour of curry leaves is difficult to describe. Words like citrusy, nutty, aniseed and bitter are often used, but the mix is hard to pin down.
As a result of their unique flavour profile, curry leaves are also difficult to find a good substitute for. There are some commonly available curry leaf substitutes recommended, but none will properly replicate the complex flavours.
The good news is they are easier to find for sale than they used to be, especially dried.
A Malaysian kari ayam is a soupy, creamy curry, with plenty of rich sauce. And the trademark ingredient for the body of the sauce is coconut milk, which provides not only creaminess, but a distinct and delicious flavour of its own.
All but one of the recipes includes coconut milk. Because a Malaysian chicken curry is soupy rather than thick, most use thin coconut milk, or take steps to thin out thick coconut milk. And this is usually done with water, but sometimes with chicken stock instead.
Water and chicken stock
Most of the authors dilute and extend their coconut milk with water or chicken stock. Water is the more popular, and the amount used is usually related to how much and what type of coconut milk the author uses.
Shallots, garlic and ginger
Most of the recipes use a freshly made aromatic paste for the base of the curry, and its foundation in most cases is onions, garlic and ginger:
- Sixteen recipes include onions in their pastes, and overwhelmingly the authors prefer smaller, milder shallots. Only two use another variety of onion, either red or yellow. While a couple of authors only use two or three shallots, most use more than five, and a couple use more than ten.
- The same sixteen recipes also include garlic, varying from two to ten cloves.
- Thirteen authors also include fresh ginger, most commonly a knob of one to two inches.
In most cases these ingredients are minced or blitzed together, often with the rehydrated chilies and sometimes other ingredients as well. As an example, recipes that use minced lemongrass include it here.
Malaysian curry powder
The curry powder is a fundamental component of the flavour of a Malaysian chicken curry. And there are a variety of different powders used here:
- Three authors provide directions for making your own curry powder from scratch.
- Three authors specify a commercially available Malaysian curry powder.
- A few authors recommend a style of curry powder, either Malaysian or “meat” (more on this in a moment).
- Several just list “curry powder” without any further detail.
And rather surprisingly, two recipes don’t use curry powder at all. Both do however add a few common curry powder ingredients to their pastes or whole to their curries.
Given that you need it for your chicken curry, if you’re thinking “I’ve got some curry powder in the cupboard, I’m good to go” be aware it’s almost certainly not Malaysian curry powder.
So what’s the difference?
Malaysian curry powder vs “regular” curry powder
Most standard store-bought curry powder is an Indian-style curry powder (conveniently ignoring the fact that Indians do not use curry powder, or even have “curry”). And while most of the ingredients in an Indian-style curry powder are also found in a Malaysian curry powder, the ratios are different. Plus there are some important ingredients in one, but not the other.
To better understand the differences, I’ve compared a bunch of different curry powders. As well as the recipes of our three authors who make their own, I also reviewed five other recipes for Malaysian curry powder, plus the ingredients lists for three commercially available Malaysian curry powders (all made in Malaysia). I then compared this to four common Indian-style curry powder brands that are reasonably common in grocery stores. If you’re interested I’ve listed the curry powder recipes and the pre-made products at the bottom of the page.
How are Malaysian and Indian-style curry powders alike?
Almost every recipe and every product I looked at (both Malaysian and “regular”) included the following:
- Coriander seed
- Dried chilies
- Black pepper
- Fennel seeds
The ratios of these ingredients vary quite a bit though. As an example, the Indian-style curry powders have more turmeric (higher up the ingredient list). And there tends to be more chili in Malaysian powders.
Beyond that there’s quite a lot of variation, especially amongst the homemade variants. But there are a few ingredients that appear to be unique to each type of curry powder.
What’s the difference between Malaysian and Indian-style curry powders?
There are two ingredients that appear in all the Indian-style powders but aren’t used in any commercial Malaysian curry powders and only one of the homemade versions. They are fenugreek and mustard.
Fenugreek is a very common ingredient in Indian cooking, with the seeds used in a variety of different dishes. They have a sweet, nutty flavour with hints of maple, so much so that fenugreek seeds are commonly used in the manufacture of artificial maple syrup.
You’re no doubt familiar with mustard, although this refers to ground mustard seeds rather than the prepared condiment paste. The seeds are spicy, with the level of heat depending on the variety (yellow are milder than brown or black).
Apart from one homemade recipe none of the Malaysian curry powders includes either of these ingredients. The one exception is from Nithya on Nithi’s Click & Cook, who is in fact Indian, which likely explains her inclusion of fenugreek in her Malaysian curry powder recipe.
Most of the Indian-style powders also include ginger and garlic, neither of which appear in the Malaysian powders, but given that these are foundations of the curry paste in most of these recipes this seems less important. They will of course alter the taste of the curry powder though.
Looking from the Malaysian side, most of the powders include cardamom, which is not found in any of the Indian-style powders. And all but one of the Malaysian curry powders include an aniseed-flavoured ingredient, mostly fennel seeds. Several of them contain more than one, with the second addition usually being star anise. While a couple of the Indian-style powders do include fennel or anise, they are in smaller quantities, and the other two don’t include any.
What’s the deal with cloves?
As an interesting aside, all but one of the homemade Malaysian curry powder recipes includes cloves, but none of the commercial products do. And there are small amounts of cloves in the Indian-style powders, but only two of them.
If you have any theories as to why this may be I’d love to hear from you in the comments at the bottom of the page, because I must admit I’m scratching my head!
Commercially available Malaysian curry powders
As I mentioned earlier, three authors specify the brand of curry powder they use. They are:
- Cap Burung Nuri (Parrot Brand)
All three are made in Malaysia, and all three are sold as “meat curry powders”. This is because the powder is intended for meat curries, and there are other varieties of curry powder for other foods, such as fish curry powder.
Other “authentic” ingredients in a Malaysian chicken curry
There are a couple of ingredients that only a few authors use in their curries which are in fact quite authentic.
Although only four authors use it, you’d likely find belachan in a kari ayam you bought from a food stall or restaurant in Malaysia.
Although no authors mention it, I suspect the reason it’s not included in more recipes is because many people find its flavour overpowering and even unpleasant. It’s probably also not easy for most people to find.
The nut of the candlenut tree is frequently used in dishes from Malaysia or Indonesia, especially curries, so it can be considered an “authentic” ingredient.
In spite of this, only six authors use it. One uses a common substitute, cashew nuts, because it can provide the same effect.
Candlenuts have high oil content and are added to dishes to help thicken them and to enhance the creaminess. Since their role is more generic than specific, and they’re not an easy ingredient to find, most of these authors leave them out.
It’s worth noting that raw candlenuts are mildly toxic, but the toxic compounds break down when heated.
A few “inauthentic” inclusions
A few of the recipes include ingredients that are not included in a traditional Malaysian kari ayam. In fact, some of them attract strongly-worded comments from Malaysian readers calling out the use of some of these additions:
- Fish sauce. In spite of one reader’s comment that “a good Malay cook never uses fish sauce”, a couple of authors include it in their curry (although to be fair one author does admit its inclusion is a Filipino preference). It’s probably also a reasonable substitute for belachan.
- Kaffir lime leaves are another ingredient that attracts criticism for being inauthentic, but both authors that use it do not use curry leaves, so have probably added kaffir lime leaves as a substitute. And one other recipe includes a bay leaf, likely for the same reason.
- Tomato. A couple of recipes include either tomatoes or tomato paste, both in small amounts. While tomato is used in some Malaysian dishes, here it’s inclusion is probably a matter of personal preference.
- Soy sauce. A few recipes include soy sauce. Like fish sauce, this is probably added to season the curry with more saltiness.
This is of course not to say these ingredients aren’t delicious additions. They’re just not likely to be found in a chicken curry you’d buy in Malaysia. And for most of us, that doesn’t matter at all.
Making your Malaysian chicken curry
I’m not going to go into great detail on how to make your kari ayam because the authors have all provided plenty of detail on this. And there are almost as many different cooking methods as there are recipes, so the best advice I can give you here is pick a recipe and follow it. But it’s worth looking at some of the great tips that come up.
Cook your flavour base until it is fragrant
Most of the recipes start by frying the whole spices, the curry paste (chilies, shallots, etc), the curry powder, or some combination of these three.
The goal here is to release the flavours locked away in the spices and aromatics by frying them in oil on their own before the sauce is added. A few authors make a point of ensuring you do this step, but it’s not just with a Malaysian curry that this is important. You should try it with your spice blend the next time you make a batch of chili con carne too. It really does enhance the flavour of herbs and spices, especially dried ones.
The what now? Don’t worry, that was my first reaction too, but it turns out this step is a fundamental and critical part of many Asian curries.
If you’ve eaten many Asian curries you’ll have no doubt noticed there’s often a layer of oil sitting on top of the curry. This is there because the cook has forcibly separated, or split, the spice paste during the cooking process. In fact, pecah minyak means “breaking the oil”.
Most of us shudder at the memory of sauces we’ve overcooked and “broken”, leaving them gritty, greasy or worse. But for your Malaysian chicken curry (and many other curries), a number of these authors insist you do this.
The reason this is done is to ensure that as much flavour as possible is extracted from the curry paste and accompanying spices. Jun has a great description of the importance of breaking the oil with his recipe on Food 52.
Keep in mind though this is only when you’re frying your spices, paste and curry powder. Once the coconut milk goes in, the authors all lower the temperature and simmer more gently. You want to split the oil, not the coconut milk.
For many of us rice will be the natural choice to accompany a delicious curry, and a number of the authors agree. But given that a kari ayam is quite saucy, a couple of other great suggestions come up as well.
Several authors recommend serving your Malaysian chicken curry with either bread or a roti to dip in the sauce.
If you haven’t come across it before, roti is a fried, unleavened flat bread that’s popular in India (and many other countries). And I can easily imagine it would be beautiful dipped in the curry sauce.
Better when made ahead
Several authors recommend making your curry ahead of time, preferably the day before you want to eat it.
Like many dishes, your chicken curry will improve with time, as the flavours in the herbs, spices and oils have more opportunity to blend together. So if it works for you, try making it earlier than you need. Even a few hours will help.
The essence of an authentic Malaysian chicken curry (kari ayam)
If you want to make a reasonably authentic Malaysian chicken curry, there are a few common and a few less common ingredients you’ll need on hand:
- Bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces
- Malaysian curry powder
- Dried chilies
- Lemongrass stalks
- Star anise pods
- Cinnamon (bark, not powder)
- Curry leaves (dried will work, but fresh is better)
- Coconut milk
- Fresh garlic and ginger
And if you want a really authentic experience, add in some belachan and candlenuts as well.
If you can’t find Malaysian curry powder, don’t settle for Indian-style versions. They’re great, but not quite right for your kari ayam. You can make your own with:
- Coriander seeds
- Dried chilies
- Cumin seeds
- Fennel seeds
- Ground turmeric
- Black pepper
- Cardamom pods
The process is as simple as toasting them in a pan until they’re fragrant, then grinding them up. And if you’d rather not roast and grind your own spices, you can still make a great curry powder with ground versions of all of these as well.
So there you have it – the essence of kari ayam, a traditional Malaysian chicken curry. It’s a long list of ingredients, but don’t be put off. Follow one of the great recipes below, and you can reproduce an amazing and unique curry. And by making it yourself, you can dial the chilies down (or up!) to suit your tastes.
Recipes included in this review
Malaysian Chicken Curry (kari ayam) recipes
- Malaysian Chicken Curry Recipe – Christie at Home
- Chicken Curry | Chicken Curry Malaysian Style | Chicken Curry Recipe | Kari Ayam – Luveena Lee
- Malaysian Curry Chicken thicker version – My Lovely Recipes
- Malaysian Curry Chicken Recipe – CDKitchen.com
- Indonesian Kari Ayam (Indonesian Potato Chicken Curry) – What to Cook Today
- Chicken Curry With Potatoes – Recipe – Craft Passion
- Malaysian Chicken Curry with Potatoes – Asian Inspirations
- Malaysian Chicken Curry – 17ngon
- Kari Ayam 咖喱雞 Malaysian Chicken Curry – 3 Hungry Tummies
- Malaysian Chicken Curry (Kari Ayam) – Asia Market
- Malaysian Chicken Curry | Kari Ayam – Nithi’s Click & Cook
- kari ayam – malaysian curry chicken – glebe kitchen
- Malaysian Style Chicken Curry (Kari Ayam) – Ang Sarap
- Malaysian chicken curry (kari ayam) recipe – SBS Food
- Best Malaysian Chicken Curry Recipe – Food 52
- Chicken curry Kari ayam – Gourmet Traveller
- Malaysian chicken curry /kari ayam – Petit Chef
Malaysian Curry Powder recipes
Malaysian curry powders on Amazon
Note: these are both bulk purchases (3+ packs)
The third brand, Cap Burung Nuri (Parrot Brand), isn’t available on Amazon.