I’ve been cooking this curry for years – it’s one of Clancy’s faves – yet as good as it tastes on the stovetop, it tastes better in a camp oven over flames. If you are going to cook it on your next adventure though, blend the spice paste up before you head out. Alternatively, make a big batch and keep some in the freezer that you can take with you.

The method I’ve given here is for a stovetop, but it translates just as well to fire. We last cooked it using the Oz Pig – mainly because it’s easier to control the heat and stir the sauce. If you’re using coals, you don’t need any on the lid.

Some notes on the ingredients

With regards to ingredients, as per usual adjust to your own taste – especially where the chilli is involved. We usually use a few large red chillis and leave some of the small ones with their seeds intact. The large red chillis won’t add a lot of heat to the dish, but they will make your paste more orange than yellow – not a big deal.

Candlenuts are something you might not have come across before – and something we’ve, in the past, left out to adapt the recipe for nut allergies. Sure, they add some authenticity to the dish, but on the other hand, they’re not really missed. If you can’t get candlenuts – which are available mostly at Asian supermarkets – macadamia nuts add a similar texture.

Belacan (Belachan) is another one you might not have come across before. It’s truly foul smelling stuff…when I say foul, I mean, really foul – another reason to mix up your paste before going on your adventure. You don’t want this stuff lying open in your tent/van/whatever.

It’s the sort of smell that seriously you wouldn’t know if it were off or not. Worse than smelly cheese, this doesn’t have the aroma of unwashed wet socks, but rather the stink of decaying shrimp. And that’s what it’s made from – fermented shrimp with a little salt. It’s then sun-dried and cut into blocks – although some stockists will sell it in a wet form that is also pretty manky.

Thankfully there are now some brands that are sold not only pre-roasted but pre-cut into individually sealed portion controlled sizes. Trust me, that is a breath of fresh air for the fridge.

So why would we cook with something that smells as gross as this? Simply because it adds that indefinable but absolutely necessary pungency to Malaysian cooking. (It’s also used widely in Thai, Laotian, Indonesian, Singapore and other South East Asian cuisines). It’s the belacan that gives sambal its potency, and the taste that allows the finished product to take you back to that Hawker’s Market in Penang.

Galangal is similar to ginger, but has a different texture and is more citrusy in taste. If you can’t get it, use more ginger.

I can rarely be faffed jointing a whole chicken (and our supermarket doesn’t sell free-range pieces other than drumsticks), so we used skinless thighs. If you are doing this, I would recommend taking the chicken out after the initial cooking period so that you have the time to develop the sauce in the way it needs to be developed. Then simply toss the chicken pieces back in for the final 10 mins or so.

Anyways, here is the recipe. It will serve 4 people easily with leftovers dependent on appetites.

What you need

For the paste:
  • 8 red birds eye chillis, split & de-seeded. We like chilli so leave the seeds in a few of these.
  • 3 shallots, sometimes called French shallots. If you can’t get them, use red onions – 1 large one should be enough
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • 2.5cm each ginger, galangal, and turmeric (peeled and sliced). Galangal is similar to ginger, yet tastes very different.
  • 5 candlenuts (These taste like a brazil nut with the texture of a macadamia)
  • 2 stalks lemongrass (the white part)
  • 1 tsp belacan*

Smash this all with your mortar and pestle, or whack it into a food processor and whizz until it is a smooth paste.

You’ll also need:
  • 1 whole chicken jointed (or about 1.5kgs chicken pieces) – we prefer free range chooks that have clucked and scratched their way through their (short) lives.
  • 1 tbsp oil – we use rice bran or coconut oil
  • 5 eschalots (sliced)
  • 400ml can coconut cream
  • Fish sauce to taste – about a tablespoon
  • juice of ½ lime
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves, finely shredded, to serve (optional)
  • Extra lime to serve (optional)
  • Coriander to serve (optional)

Putting it all together:

  • Heat the oil in a large frypan or camp oven and fry the paste over medium heat until it is brown and fragrant. This will take about 5 minutes, but trust me, you’ll know.
  • Add the shallots and chicken pieces and coat in the paste before frying for another couple of minutes.
  • Add the coconut cream, 100ml water, and cover the pan with a lid. Bring it up to a boil before reducing to a simmer for 20 minutes. (If you’re cooking it on a stovetop you might not need the extra water).
  • Uncover and simmer for another 5-10minutes – or until the chicken is tender and the sauce has reduced to a dunkable gravy.
  • Add fish sauce to taste, stir in the lime juice and scatter with kaffir lime leaves and (if using) coriander to serve.

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