After many failed attempts I have duplicated my favorite version of kare ayam (Balinese chicken curry) at home. The food in Bali is full of bold and fresh flavors. This recipe does require a bit of patience and the ability to hunt for some unique ingredients that may not be found at your local grocer.
You may be tempted to use a food processor to make quick work of the spice paste – don’t do it. I had fallen into that trap for some time until I made the spice paste in a more traditional method using a heavy mortar and pestle. The traditional method results in a better extraction of essential oils, as well as marrying the ingredients flawlessly into a bold and fragrant spice paste. However, it the food processor method is a must for you the dish will still taste great.
The best part is that this recipe captures the true taste of Bali. If you are a lover of curry as am I you will want to make this dish part of your repertoire.
Ingredients for Kare Ayam
- 12 candlenuts (hazelnuts can be substituted)
- 12 black peppercorns
- 12 coriander seeds
- 8 shallots – Asian shallots – (American shallots are bigger so if using these cut the number in half)
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 7 Thai chilies
- 5 kaffir lime leaves
- 2 inches of ginger
- 1 inch of galangal (this looks a lot like ginger but is harder and more intensely flavored)
- 1 inch of fresh turmeric or one tablespoon of dried
- 1 tablespoon of palm sugar
- 2 pounds of boneless/skinless chicken thighs cut in inch cubes
- 1 can of coconut milk (not sweetened)
- ½ cup of shredded (unsweetened) coconut
- 2 or 3 stalks of lemongrass
Add the nuts, peppercorns, and coriander seeds to the mortar and pestle smashing to a rough paste. Chop the remaining ingredients from the shallots to the palm sugar and add these to your mortar and pestle. Smash away until it becomes a semi-smooth paste (This will take 5 minutes or more dependent upon how vigorously you pound and grind.) Once your curry paste is complete the task is easy.
Heat a wok on the highest setting on your strongest burner. I use a heavy, cast iron wok made by Le Creuset – this may be my favorite kitchen item. The idea is that you want a pan/wok that will hold the heat once you start cooking.
Trim the dry ends of the lemongrass stalks and peel away the outer layer. Bruise the lemongrass by smashing it with a heavy object or the back of a knife making sure to keep it whole. In a non-traditional move I opt to brown the chicken quickly working in batches if need be. The goal is to add a bit of flavor just browning the meat without cooking it through. Remove the chicken and set aside briefly. Now begin to brown the raw spice paste all at once for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the chicken back to the wok and continue the browning for another 3 to 5 minutes. Now add the coconut milk and a bit of water as well if it is too dry and stiff. Add the shredded coconut and the lemongrass and stir into the kare. Once it’s at a vigorous boil lower the heat by 20% or so and continue to cook for 30 minutes stirring frequently. In the end the sauce should be very thick clinging to the chicken pieces. Serve with rice or your favorite cooked grain.
Optional: Add a couple of cubed sweet potatoes to the pot when you add the first liquid addition. You can add a bit of stock to loosen the mixture if it becomes too dry. This is a great way to extend the dish while adding a great supporting flavor component.