Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Epic Quest for Ayam Ketumbar

Steve (who needs no introduction to those who know him) has “interesting” roots. Notice the inverted commas, because if anybody lives up to the label “mixed heritage” -- it was he.

His identity card says “Race: Chinese”; but everyone who sees him for the first time, speaks to him in Malay. He is yellow-skinned; but has uncles and cousins on his father’s side who are kopi-o-colored with tightly curled hair. He has a Chinese full name, while his dad owns a solitary Chinese surname. Steve’s maternal grandma is China-born yet his mom speaks English, Malay, Hokkien, and the Nonya patois, and dresses in sarong kebaya. 

Steve’s dad came to Singapore from Pulau Tikus, a tiny Dutch and Portuguese enclave in Penang. When Steve was a kid, his family lived in Pasir Panjang. In the 1950s to 70s, Pasir Panjang was an idyllic coastal neighborhood of Malays and Peranakans, dotted with picturesque seaside bungalows and terrace shophouses, and home to a thriving Malay kampong. Steve grew up on intimate terms with Malay, Peranakan, and Eurasian cooking. His maternal grandpa was of Dutch descent, and Steve’s father worked for the British Admiralty in Singapore, so European-style afternoon teas and soirees were a commonplace of his childhood, and the aromas from the family kitchen were rich and very diverse. 

Oh yeah, and Steve loves his mom’s cooking. There was a dish of his mom’s that Steve particularly liked, and my attempts to weasel that recipe from his mother brought me up against the full Byzantine brunt of a Peranakan matriarch – with hilarious results.

Peranakan Bibiks are insanely jealous of their recipes, and guard them like a dragon would its magic pearl. Everyone knew that, but I decided to try anyway. So I asked politely for the recipe; it was a kind of chicken sambal. The first few times, Steve’s mom pretended not to have heard me. But when I persisted, she told me the recipe was not written down; it was “in her head” and the measurements were “agak-agak” (Malay for “estimated”).

To further throw me off, she kept changing the dish’s name. It was “Portuguese Chicken” at first, later becoming “Arab Chicken”. So, when, on the umpteenth attempt, I asked for the Arab Chicken recipe, she snorted, “What Arab Chicken; I don’t have that. I think you mean the Indonesian Chicken…?”

I was ready to throw in the towel…she was good. I understood at that moment why Peranakan sons are so enamored of their mother’s cooking, and why they are so tied to their mom’s apron strings.

Years went by, we moved away, and the recipe was forgotten. Then one evening after dinner, during a visit to her home, she pulled out a yellowed exercise book, flipped the dog-eared pages and said simply, “Here it is.” After more than 20 years, the recipe was in our hands. She never explained why; and we never asked.

When we got home and looked at the book, Steve started laughing loudly: “It’s my hand writing!” The prim, childish writing on the pages brought back memories for him, of afternoons after school, spent copying recipe after recipe into that exercise book for mom. “I’ve forgotten all about it,” he said. “…All those years ago.”  

For me, the mystery’s finally over: it’s actually Ayam Ketumbar, a Peranakan dish, but with slightly altered ingredients.



Ground coriander seed           1½ tbsp
Ground cumin                          1 tsp
Ground fennel                          1 tsp
Black pepper                             1½ tsp, coarsely ground
Ginger                                        30 g, grated
Garlic                                          4, minced
Oil                                               1½ tbsp
Onion                                         2, chopped
Sugar                                          ½ tbsp.
Chicken                                      1½ kg, chopped into large pieces
Assam                                        50g, dilute with 2 tbsp of water and drain
Water                                         1 cup
Salt                                             ½ tsp
Dark soy sauce                         ½ tsp

  1. Fry ground coriander (without oil) in low heat until it is fragrant. Be careful as ground coriander gets burnt easily. Remove from heat.
  2. Mix the spices, along with ginger and garlic, into a paste.
  3. Fry onion with oil under low heat until the onion has caramelized without being burnt (about 20 minutes). Add spice mixture, sugar, and continue to fry for 5 minutes.
  4. Turn heat to the maximum, add chicken and fry until the chicken is slightly brown.
  5. Add assam and water, simmer for 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked.
  6. Season with salt and dark soy sauce.
Note: Actual dish is darker; less dark soya sauce was used in the picture so that the chicken would show more clearly.


  1. This is such a lovely story!

  2. Thanks, Wai and Monica. Your comments mean a lot to me. : )

  3. Ah! My family also makes this - our version has no cumin, fennel or assam, and the ketumbar seeds must be dry-roasted whole, then pounded...and the sugar must be palm sugar. :-)

  4. @Chris Tan: I used to dry-roast the ketumbar seeds but have now opted for a simpler method by frying coriander powder in a clean wok. : )