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Captain's chicken curry from Malaysia (Ayam Kapitan)

This is a very traditional Peranakan Nyonya dish from the fusion of Malay and Chinese cuisines in the region of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. This dish takes from all three cultures and is one of those dishes that everyone must experience at least once.

The name Kapitan for this dish remains a mystery. One story is that the Portuguese introduced the word from the original " Captain" and the officers were called with this term. This was a curry that was favoured by them, and the Captain usually set this dish in the centre of his table to highlight how delicious it was. A second story says that a ship's captain on route to Malaysia asked his chef what was for dinner, and the response was " Kari Kapitan"! The stories are fun, and this dish is delicious.

The dish is semi-dry, and the chicken is heavily drenched in a rich sauce that is bold and spicy. The chillies explode, the tamarind adds a tanginess and the galangal, Kaffir lime and lemongrass finish the Asian flavours beautifully. A dense curry that is packed with flavour, this is a curry that I will be making again. On a side note, there is an Indian version of this curry too, it will appear on my blog soon.

Malaysia: Recipes from a family kitchen is a wonderful cookbook filled with very approachable recipes that highlight flavours, techniques and dishes from the region. Ping Coombes has accumulated some amazing recipes from her home kitchen and from street stalls to put together a definitive collection of the classics and flavours of the land. The traditional flavors emerge strongly resulting in beautiful flavours. I definitely need to cook from it a lot more!

For more recipes from this cookbook click here.


6 chicken drumsticks, or complete legs separated at the joint

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons oil

For the spice paste:

15 dried Kashmiri chillies

1-inch piece ginger

1/2-inch piece galanga

15 shallots

1-inch piece lemongrass

4 almonds

3 cloves garlic

1/4 cup water

5 tablespoons oil

For the curry:

1 cup coconut milk

1-inch piece lemongrass

2 Kaffir lime leaves

1 tablespoon sugar

2-3 tablespoons tamarind concentrate

Salt, to taste

10 shallots, quartered


Rub the chicken with the turmeric and salt and marinate in the fridge overnight or on the countertop for 1 hour. Heat the oil on a frying pan and fry the chicken till browned all over, you may do this in two batches so that you do not stew the chicken. Set aside.

Meanwhile, make the spice paste by adding all the ingredients to a small blender and purée till you have a smooth paste.

Heat the oil in a deep pot and add the paste and fry on medium-low heat till the liquids have evaporated and the oils have risen to the surface. the paste will turn to a robust red colour. Be careful to add enough oil or the paste will burn rather than fry.

Add the fried chicken and fry for 2 minutes to coat the chicken with the spices. Add the coconut milk, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, sugar, tamarind and salt and bring to a simmer. Cook on a low simmer for 45 minutes. The chicken should be extremely soft and naturally falling off the bone. taste for spice, salt and tartness.

Serve hot topped with fried shallots and with Malabar parathas or rice.

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