Ayam buah keluak is perhaps the most important recipe for me. This dish makes its appearance every Chinese New Year and if I get it right, it means that the rest of the year is going to be prosperous and smooth sailing. Get it wrong, and dark ominous clouds start forming in the horizon!
I have tried cooking this dish for the past three years and I think I have finally managed to get it right. By right, I mean that I got a resounding nod of approval from my wife and her family who have grown up eating this dish every Chinese New Year! This is a style of ayam buah keluak that my wife likes where the nuts are cooked whole and served as is. Others like to scoop out the kernels first and mix it with minced pork or shrimp before stuffing it back into the shell, but that is not how my wife likes it. Personally, I prefer the stuffed nut version, but I dare not cook this at home as I would be kicked out of the bedroom!
Here is my recipe which is modified from Mrs Lee’s Cookbook.
Chicken 1.2kg chopped
30 buah keluak
Tamarind juice 8 Tbsp (to taste)
Sugar 3 Tbsp (to taste)
Salt 2 Tbsp (to taste)
Lengkuas 12 slices
Tumeric 1/2 thumb size
Candlenuts 6 pc
Shallots 30 (approx 300g)
Red chillies 10
Belachan 1 Tbsp
Coriander powder 1 tsp
Lemon grass 1
Oil 1 cup
1. Soak the buah keluak for five days, changing the water daily. Scrub the nuts clean and break open the nuts by tapping the bottom of each nut with a stone pestle. (see video). Scoop out the flesh of the nuts which are half full and set aside.
2. Chop the chicken and marinade with 1 Tbsp tumeric powder and 2 tsp salt for at least 1 hour.
3. Prepare the ingredients for the rempah. Chop the shallots in a food processor and set aside. Toast the belacan and then blend with the rest of the ingredients until it forms a smooth paste.
4. Heat the wok and add 1 cup of oil. Start by frying the minced shallots for a few minutes till they turn light brown and you can smell the aroma. Add the rest of the spice paste and fry over medium heat till the rempah darkens and the reddish oil is released.
5. In a large pot add a scoop of rempah and the buah keluak (plus the extra flesh) and enough water to cover and cook for 1 hour. In the meantime, poach the chicken for 5 mins, drain and set aside.
6. Fry the chicken in the rempah for a few minutes until the chicken is evenly coated, then start adding the water from the pot of buah keluak. Simmer for 20mins. Add the rest of the buah keluak and simmer till the chicken is tender. Add sugar, salt and tamarind and adjust to your taste.
Here are the detailed notes:
I find the measurements for the rempah a source of constant frustration. What does 12 slices of galangal actually mean? The good thing is that the proportions for the different ingredients in rempah is usually quite forgiving and in general, most peranakan cooks I know really go by feel (agak agak). If you have done a few recipes, you will develop the feel for the amount of each ingredient you need to add. The photo above is for a double portion so the ingredients are for 2.4kg of chicken.
Start by frying the shallots with a generous amount of oil. Rempah is not health food. If you try to fry with less oil, the rempah will not turn out right, it will stick to the pan and you will be frustrated. Instead, fry with more than enough oil and skim it off the top after after the cooking is done.
Once the shallots are light brown and you can smell the toasty aroma, add the rest of the rempah paste
Fry over medium-low heat for 10-15mins or until it turns dark red and the oil separates.
Most recipes simply call for the chicken to be added to the rempah. I did one extra step and that is to marinade the chicken with salt and tumeric powder first for several hours. I like to use kampung chicken for this recipe as the meat is firmer and is ideal for low and slow cooking.
The chicken is poached for 5 mins. This washes away the excess tumeric and salt and firms up the chicken. According to Chef Eric Teo who shared this tip with me, this steps gives the chicken a better flavour and helps to prevent the chicken from breaking too easily.
The buah keluak is first cooked in a pot with a scoop of rempah (1 cup) and enough water to cover the seeds. This is simmered for an hour to create a stock that is rich and aromatic. This tip was from my mother-in-law. In the past, I used to simply add the buah keluak to the chicken without boiling first. I found this way better as you get a richer gravy.
Briefly fry the chicken and the rempah together till the chicken is evenly covered. Some cooks will turn off the heat at this time and leave the chicken to marinate in the rempah. You can try this if you have the time.
The buah keluak water is added to the chicken gradually while gently stirring the wok. Add the rest of the buah keluak seeds and simmer till the chicken is tender.
For the salt, sugar and tamarind, don’t just follow the recipe blindly. Add in stages and taste the gravy until you get the taste you want. It should be slightly tangy but not sweet or overly salty. Leave to cool and skim off the excess oil. It’s the perfect Chinese New Year dish as it can be made a few days before and tastes even better overnight!
The recipe above is a more elaborate way of cooking ayam buah keluak based on tips I got from several chefs and friends. Below is the video of how to cook the dish based on Mrs Lee’s cookbook. The recipe is for one chicken so you can see the actual ingredients and how to prepare the buah keluak.