Kapitan Chicken (Ayam Kapitan)

I remember the first time I tried this dish – it was in Penang way back in 2009 and neither of us had tasted anything with so many fragrant layers to it. It didn’t seem to belong in any of the neat South East Asian cuisines we’d previously tried – it was part of them but so much more.

While it originated in Malay kitchens Ayam Kapitan is, in fact, an example of Peranakan Nyonya cuisine – which arose from the fusion of Chinese and Malay cultures in what is now Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

This deceptively simple dish represents 600 years of political struggle, industry, war and romance. It tells the story of the powerful Malacca Sultanate, which ruled over that strategic Malaysian shipping port from the 15th century. In its very ingredients you can see the presence of indigenous Malays, the Hindu and Tamil influence of the Sultanate, and later Portuguese, Dutch and British influences.

Adam Liaw, two kitchens

As for the name? The term Kapitan is a derivative of the word Captain. It’s a term that was introduced by the Portuguese when they conquered Melaka in the 16th century. They appointed a member of each ethnic group or trading community to act as a bureaucratic leader or Kapitan. The practise continued when the Dutch took over, and also through to the times of the British East India Company and British colonialism. Obviously, there’s more to it than that, but this is a blog about food not the political history of the Malaysian peninsular.

I like to think that the dish was laid on the table before the Kapitan one night and he said something like, ‘what’s for dinner?’ and the chef replied ‘Ayam, Kapitan’.

Anyways, this is my husband’s favourite dish – and the one I cooked on Saturday night as an early Valentine’s Day dinner. I also featured it in my last novel Be Careful What You Wish For where the hero cooks it for the heroine – and #spoileralert it has the desired effect too.

The recipe is from Adam Liaw’s book, Two Kitchens, but we’ve mucked about with the quantities and ingredients a tad – as you tend to do with recipes to make them your own.

I can rarely be faffed jointing a whole chicken (and our supermarket doesn’t sell free-range pieces other than drumsticks), so we often use skinless thigh fillets. 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 minutes or so.

Also, the ingredient list is long, but the paste is done in a food processor and the rest is quite simple really.

Anyways, here is the recipe. It will serve 4 people easily – with plenty of leftovers.

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*

Whack it into a food processor – the Nutribullet works well for this – and whizz until it is a smooth paste. Add a little vegetable oil or water if it needs some moisture to get going.

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. Alternatively, you can use 1kg thigh fillets.
  • 1 tbsp oil – we use rice bran or coconut oil, but any vegetable oil is fine
  • 5 shallots (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 (cilantro) to serve (optional)

Putting it all together:

  • Heat the oil in a large frypan 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.

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. 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. I’m not talking it up, am I? It is, however, essential.

It’s the sort of smell that seriously you wouldn’t know if it was 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. We actually visited a place on the other side of Penang where they did make it. I wrote about it here.

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. Sometimes it’s called Thai ginger. If you can’t get it, use more ginger.

Kaffir Lime Leaves are readily available in most supermarkets in Australia and New Zealand these days. I generally buy a pack and store them in the freezer for when I need them. If you can’t get them you can use lime zest as a substitute.

Linking up as a recipe swap/blog hop with Leslie from Once Upon A Time Happily Ever After. Thanks to readers from All the Little Bits. If you want more recipes hop on over to Liz at Closet Play Image.

Check out the other bloggers who participated:

Dani at Faster Than Forever http://lildesiqua.blogspot.com/
Gale at All the Little Bits https://allthelittlebits.com/.
Jo (me) at And Anyways  https://andanyways.com/
Liz at Closet Play Image  https://closetplay.biz/
Jamie at No Delusions of Grandeur https://nodelusionsofgrandeur.com/
Kirstin at Loving Life https://troyerslovinglife.blogspot.com/
Penny at Penny’s Passion http://pennyspassion.blogspot.com/
Deb at Deb’s World http://debs14.blogspot.com/
Leslie at Once Upon a Time and Happily Ever After https://onceuponatimehappilyeverafter.com/

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Author: Jo

Author, baker, sunrise chaser

11 thoughts

    1. We make a lot of curries from scratch – mostly South East Asian, of course. It’s rewarding and somehow you get those extra layers.

  1. That looks amazing. I love the terms you use…”faffed” 🙂 I swear Americans have the most boring phrases and words…lol. Anyways, I have never heard of many of those ingredients but this sounds so good. Glad you shared it.

    1. Sometimes I think I need a glossary of terms on my website lol. We’re fortunate here in that we can get most Asian ingredients at the supermarket. Thanks for dropping by.

  2. Oh, wow…I would love to try this dish! It looks so good! Many of the ingredients sounded foreign to me, so I appreciated your detailed explanations. You seem so knowledgeable about Malaysian cooking. I’m intrigued, and I plan to look back and read some of your other recipe posts.

    1. Thanks Gale. We’ve travelled pretty extensively in SE Asia but are really lucky here in Australia to have access to some amazing Asian ingredients.

  3. I love this kind of food! Thankfully the supermarkets here in the UK now stock the majority of these ingredients so I will definitely be ‘pinning’ this to try it for myself.

  4. Thank you for the mini-glossary for some of the less familiar ingredients and the bit of history behind this dish. So fun that this dish was also a meal in one of your books. Have never cooked with fish sauce but have pinned several recipes lately that call for it. Interesting to learn about new versions of foods that were already familiar to me. This recipe looks delicious and was fun to read. Thank you for joining me!!

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