'Ayam Goreng Berempah': A fried chicken fit for multi-cultural Malaysia
In the world of food, there lies a select few dishes that are wholly revered regardless of class, country, or culture. Without a doubt, fried chicken is one of them. I mean, who in their right mind can resist the crunchy, deep-fried crust and uber-succulent flesh of a good fried chicken?
We're no different in Malaysia. Mention fried chicken and somewhere a Malaysian will salivate. All throughout the country, allegiances can be made or broken with the mere mention of your favourite fried chicken joint. In KL and PJ alone, we're spoilt for choice from local joints like Victory's and Lim Fried Chicken (which, despite its signage, isn't only for Liverpool fans) to Korean-style fried chicken eateries like Kyochon, and classic American fast food fare like KFC and Texas Chicken.
But out of all the fried chickens, I think Malaysians everywhere can agree that ayam goreng berempah holds a very special place in all our hearts. It's a fried chicken that's aromatic and deeply laced with lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, and a ton of other Southeast Asian spices. It's a fried chicken that truly expresses its Malaysian flavours in full, and in doing so it can certainly hold its own against the heavyweights from Kentucky and Korea.
Just like any fried chicken, we all have our favourites. My choice, which happens to be arguably the most prolific one in PJ, is Village Park. Their fried chicken is served alongside their award-winning nasi lemak, and has that shatteringly crispy crust and strong scent of spice all throughout the chicken. The kicker for me though, are those extra fried bits of spice and flour they generously pile on top of your chicken, that when mixed into your nasi gives it that salty, umami crunch. It might just be the reason why I keep going back again and again, and it's certainly the reason why I've tried to recreate Village Park's chicken at home!
As much as I love ayam goreng berempah though, I have a certain gripe with it. Despite how deeply satisfying it can taste, its texture often leaves much to be desired. Unlike the succulent flesh of Southern fried chicken, which drips with juice as you bite into them, most ayam goreng berempah have dry, overcooked, and sometimes stringy flesh. The secret, I found, to the incredibly moist fried chickens of the American South, is in the buttermilk brine. By soaking the chicken in salty buttermilk, the chicken retains a lot more of its moisture after a long fry in oil, and stays plump and tender.
So this National Day, in the spirit of embracing the diversity in cultures and background our nation is built upon, I attempted to bridge cultures in my kitchen too. I cooked ayam goreng berempah, based off that signature Village Park flavour profile, but I also utilised the buttermilk brining technique that makes the fried chicken of the American South so dang tender. It took me a few attempts to get right (five times to be exact), but it was so worth it! The result combines the aromatic, spice-laden flavours of ayam goreng berempah, and the succulent, juice-dripping texture that's a signature of a good buttermilk fried chicken, giving it the best of both worlds.
Scandalous? Perhaps. But like Malaysia, I think it's certainly benefited from the cultural diversity. So Selamat Hari Kebangsaan all! Here's to a new Malaysia, and to a future that embraces the weird and wonderful rojak-ing of food, culture, and heritage that makes this country so uniquely ours!
Recipe: Ayam Goreng Berempah Buttermilk
4 whole chicken legs (drumstick + thigh)
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar, or lemon juice
1 tablespoon salt
5 shallots, peeled
8 garlic cloves
3 stalks of lemongrass
1 thumb-sized piece of galangal
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon curry powder
200g all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ tablespoon salt
~1 litre of oil, for deep frying
1. Pour the milk in a large bowl. Then, add the white wine vinegar and salt to it, give it a quick stir and let it sit for 10 minutes until it starts to coagulate a little. (Alternatively, you could buy ready-made buttermilk, though it is a little tough to find in Malaysia.) Submerge the chicken legs in the buttermilk brine and let it sit, refrigerated, for 4 hours, or up to overnight for the buttermilk to really work its magic.
2. After brining, remove the chicken from the buttermilk brine, and pat it dry. Reserve the buttermilk.
3. For the spice paste, roughly chop up the shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, and ginger, and put them all in a food processor or blender. To this, add the turmeric powder, mustard powder, smoked paprika, and curry powder and blend them all until smooth. Rub this spice paste all over the chicken, and refrigerate for another 2 hours, or up to 12 hours.
4. When you're ready to fry the chicken, heat up the oil in a deep pot or a wok to 170°C. In a bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt. For each piece of chicken, first, dredge it in the flour mixture, give it a few taps to get rid of the excess flour, then dip it in the buttermilk reserved from earlier. Finally, dredge it in the flour a second time, and again, tap off the excess. Fry the chicken immediately in the oil for 10-12 minutes, making sure most of the chicken is submerged in the oil. Flip over the chicken halfway through frying. Fry the chicken in a few batches if they don't all fit in the pot.
5. When the chicken is done frying, remove from the oil and place them on a wire rack to let the excess oil drip off. Let it rest for 5 minutes before digging into them!
6. Eat them however you like – with chilli sauce, in nasi lemak, or just on its own!
Follow Jun on his blog for more recipes and musings on food.