I work in a kitchen, so most of the recipes I share will be solidly based in the professional cooking world. All of these recipes will work for you at home, mainly due to the fact that I have adjusted them to do so, however, this recipe is an exception. It is an unashamedly home-style recipe that has no place whatsoever in commercial kitchens.
Its origins lie with the Nonya cooking of Singapore and Malaysia. Legend has it that over Chinese New Year, which the Nonyas adherently celebrated, wealthy settlers dismissed their staff for the course of the celebrations. These were pre-refrigeration days, so the cooks needed to prepare something that would last a few days while they were away with their families. Something that would last at room temperature in the tropics.
Tamarind was just the ticket. It had the acidity that would keep microbes at bay, and at the same time delivers a sensational sharp, yet rich flavour that makes this dish a winner. The well-to-do families without staff would simply remove some chicken from the marinade and fry it up as hunger struck.
It won’t come as any surprise that I love food. Sadly, however, I have a nearest and dearest that views food simply as a means to get through the day. You can picture my consternation as I plate up carefully crafted meals to a well-meaning shrug. This is the dish that broke the gustatory barrier. It’s a wonderful thing when you first see someone “get” the idea of flavour, and with this tamarind chicken she got it.
All I have to deal with now is weekly requests; “When are you going to make the tamarind chicken again?”
Bring 2 cups (500 ml) of water to the boil, then pour onto the tamarind pulp. Once the water has cooled a little, rub the tamarind seeds so all the fleshy skin comes away – this is where the flavour lies so be thorough here. Strain the tamarind into a bowl and add the coriander, star anise, soy sauce and sugar, then allow this mixture to cool to room temperature. Pour this marinade over the chicken, place into the fridge and allow to marinate for at least an hour, or for up to 3 days.
When you are ready to cook, place the chicken, along with the marinade into a saucepan and simmer until cooked. The timing will depend on the cut. Wings will be ready in 10-15 minutes Legs and thighs will take 20-25 minutes. Remove the chicken and let it cool down. Strain the cooking liquid.
When ready to serve, heat 1 cm (1/2 in) of oil in a fry pan to medium heat. Add the chicken and cook until warmed through and nicely coloured. The sugar and tamarind will make the skin turn a very deep colour (even black!), but don’t be alarmed. This is not only expected, it is delicious.
Heat the remaining marinade, then pour over the fried chicken and serve with steamed rice and stir-fried Asian greens.