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Sunday Night Special: Penang Fried Chicken

Penangchicken I woke up this morning wanting fried chicken. Hey, it happens. On those occasions when you practically drink until dawn, delicate light fare just doesn't appeal. Grease and spice, while probably not the wisest choice, is where it’s at.

I've never made or even tried Nonya style fried chicken, but I've always been intrigued by the notion. We defrosted a slew of drumsticks and I decided to make five my way. James is a purist and didn't want anything to do with my poultry aberration. Each to his own.

I'm looked at about five recipes before deciding on this one written by an American rather than a Malaysian. It seems that traditionally, the chicken is marinated, dried and then fried twice, that's it. But I like a little coating on my fried chicken, so went with a version that employs a light dredging.

Some make the curry powder from scratch. Some simply call for meat curry powder, a designation possibly unique to Malaysian recipes that always confounded me. They frequently specify fish curry powder or meat curry powder. Curry powder in America is kind of general as it is, though I have a bottle of Vietnamese and a can of Indian. It never occurred to me that different meats would require different spice blends, though it certainly makes sense. I made sure to pick up packets of each type, Baba's brand, while in Kuala Lumpur last summer. It looks like the main difference is the prominence of turmeric in the fish curry powder.

Though not always specified, when Singaporean-Malaysian dishes call for mustard powder I think they mean hot English style, like Colman's. Colonial influence, correct? Look no further than the Worcestershire sauce for that tip off. But I haven't found it in the few places I've looked, not even the new amazingly stocked Fairway. (But I could've missed it since they have this annoying display style of not putting like with like. Instead they separate pedestrian from gourmet. The standard cheddar and Monterrey jack blocks are in the back of the store, while all the artisanal cheeses are near the front cheese counter. Salsa shows up in three places: store-made with deli items, brands like Frontera in one spot and Old El Paso types in another.)

I ended up using the hair dryer technique to try and get the remaining marinade to stick to and sink into the chicken. It worked until the device over heated and did that scary thing where it just clicks off and won’t re-start. At least I didn’t blow a fuse. Combined with the warming-up deep fryer, I was probably taxing the electrical limits of my Brooklyn kitchen (two apartments ago, my fuse would blow if I used any combination of microwave, toaster or coffee maker at the same time as the hair dryer).

I think the oil might’ve been a little too hot, as the first batch turned out a bit dark after 12 minutes. The second batch fared slightly better. The flavor was subtle, but definitely noticeable. Slightly sweet and spicy, which was further enhanced by the Worcestershire dipping sauce. I like that sweet/meat combo, though. One of my favorite fried chicken experiments used a sugar and tea marinade. And I loathe sweet tea for drinking. For brining? Good stuff.

Rice might've been nice, white toast points traditional, but I ate my chicken starch-less with a spicy pickled cucumber relish.

Penang Fried Chicken
Inche Kabin

3 pounds chicken pieces
Salt, to taste
¼ cup dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon meat curry powder
2 teaspoon mustard powder
2 tablespoons ginger juice
3 tablespoons coconut milk
1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar
Canola or peanut oil for deep frying
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup rice flour or cornstarch

1 teaspoon mustard powder
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons lime juice
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 red chiles, sliced

Rinse the chicken parts well, pat dry with paper towels and rub with salt.

Whisk together soy sauce, curry and mustard powders, ginger juice (I used grated ginger, which is juicy but also a little chunky), coconut milk and sugar. Put chicken in a large zip lock bag and pour marinade over. Put in refrigerator and marinate for at least four hours and ideally over night.

Drain chicken pieces, shaking off excess marinade, place on baking sheet and let dry completely, about 3 hours. Alternatively, dry with a hair dryer.

Heat frying oil to 350 degrees.

Sift flour, rice flour and salt together in large bowl. In batches, dust chicken with flour mixture. Fry the chicken, a few pieces at a time, until golden and cooked through, about 15 minutes. Drain chicken on paper towels.

Mix all sauce ingredients and serve on the side.

Serves 4-6.

This recipe is an amalgamation of those found in the following books:

Terrific Pacific Cookbook by Anya Von Bremzen and John Welchman. Workman. 1995.

Nonya Flavours: A Complete Guide to Penang Straits Chinese Cuisine by Julie Wong (editor). Star Publications. 2003.

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