Ayam masak lemak cili api is probably one of my favourite easy weeknight curries, for two reasons: it’s so easy to cook with simple ingredients, and it’s over the top delicious!
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Table of contents
What is Ayam Masak Lemak Cili Api?
It’s a very traditional Malay chicken curry that originally, comes from the Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan, on the west coast of the peninsular. But like most good things, it has found its way across the region, and certainly, to Singapore and Indonesia.
But let’s take a look at the name first, and it’ll all make sense!
- ayam = chicken
- masak = to cook
- lemak = cream, but in a recipe, it tells us that the dish has been cooked with coconut milk (which is santan)
- cili = chillies (chili peppers in the US) no brainer, right?
- api = fire (tells you that this should be a spicy curry)
- BUT cili api = bird’s eye chillies
So Ayam Masak Lemak Cili Api = Chicken Coconut Curry with Bird’s Eye Chillies.
On LinsFood, where I first published this recipe (it’s still there), I call it Ayam Masak Lemak Cili Padi. Padi refers to rice plants. Cili padi is another term for bird’s eye chillies (because they are tiny).
Cooking this Malaysian Chicken Curry
As mentioned right at the start, it’s a very easy recipe, and it’s spicy. Ayam masak lemak cili api uses the most basic ingredients; I use kaffir lime leaves only because I have a kaffir lime plant that’s a bit of a monster, and needs to be constantly picked.
You can totally leave them out and finish your curry with coriander leaves (cilantro), or just skip the herb completely, which is a very common practice.
This is what we will be doing:
- Soak the tamarind (or skip if you are using shop bought paste).
- Marinate the chicken for the briefest of times.
- Lightly brown the chicken.
- Fry the ground ingredients (yes, you need a chopper or pestle and mortar).
- Add coconut milk and tamarind and cook for 30 – 45 minutes, depending on what chicken portions you are using.
That’s it, told ya it was easy.
In case you were wondering, the colour comes from the turmeric used in cooking ayam masak lemak cili api.
How to Serve Ayam Masak Lemak Cili Api?
You definitely want some plain rice to go with ayam masak lemak cili api. If you take a look at the ingredients, you’ll see that turmeric is the only spice in there. So despite the fact that it’s meant to be a spicy curry, it is rather subtle in flavour.
So you definitely don’t want fried rice, as you won’t be able to appreciate it fully. Some plain rice (white or brown) and a side vegetable dish is perfect.
This is a new site, as the time of writing, so I don’t have a side vegetable dish yet, apart from the Bayam Masak Lemak, which is also cooked in coconut milk, so not the best accompaniment.
You’ll find all the recipes on the Singaporean and Malaysian page, as they get added.
And now shall we get cooking?
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Ayam Masak Lemak Cili Api (Malaysian Chicken Curry with Bird’s Eye Chilli)
- chopping board
- large saucepan or wok
- large plate, if needed
For Marinating the Chicken
- 1 kg mix of chicken portions, some on the bone or 1 medium chicken, chopped up
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 tsp salt
- juice of 1 lime
Ingredients to be ground
- I large onion
- 1 small clove garlic
- 10 green bird’s eye chillies you can increase or decrease this
- 5 red bird’s eye chillies you can increase or decrease this
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- Coat the chicken pieces with the turmeric, salt and lime juice. Set aside while you get all the other ingredients ready.
- Make a paste with the tamarind pulp and the 4 Tbsp of very hot water. Leave to soak until needed.
- Cut the lemongrass in half, discarding the top half. Using the back of the knife, pound down on the base (bulbous end) of the lemongrass to split it roughly. This is called bruising the lemongrass. Set aside.
- Place all the ingredients to be ground in a chopper and chop to a fine paste.
Let’s Cook Ayam Masak Cili Padi
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan or wok on medium-high heat and brown the chicken pieces for 2 minutes on each side. Sprinkle the sugar over the chicken as you add the chicken to the saucepan/wok. You may have to brown the chicken in 2 batches, depending on the size of your pan. In that case, tip the first half onto a plate and do the second batch before going on to step 2. Divide the oil and sugar in 2, as well. You don't really need much oil to brown the chicken.
- When the chicken has taken on some colour, tip in the ground paste and the lemongrass and fry for 2 minutes, coating the chicken well.If you were browning the chicken in 2 batches, tip the first batch back in.
- Pour in the coconut milk, reserving about 2 Tbsp of the thick cream at the top. Also add the lime leaves, if using. If you are lucky enough to have freshly squeezed coconut milk, reserve half of the first pressing. Stir well and reduce the heat to medium.
- Remember the soaking tamarind? Discard the solids in the bowl, as much as you can. Then pour everything into the saucepan. I don't bother with a sieve, because much of the tamarind pulp and flavour that we want is lost that way.
- Bring everything to a gentle boil and then lower the heat down and cook, uncovered, for 30-45 minutes, until your chicken is cooked. Large drumsticks and chicken legs will need 45 minutes.
- When done, pour in the reserved coconut milk and check the seasoning and add more salt, if needed. You'll probably need ½ a tsp more. Heat through for a minute, then turn off the heat. Leave to rest for 5 minutes before serving with some rice and a side vegetable.