a fabulous tangy malaysian curry: kari kapitan

kari kapitan

Kari Kapitan (or Captain’s Curry or Ayam Kapitan) is a classic Nyonya recipe from Penang in Malaysia and is the perfect combination of Malay and Chinese influences; every family has its own version, passed down across the generations and often served at big family gatherings and celebrations.

At some point I should really write a post about the entirety of Malaysian cuisine; how it actually works. But a quick summation is that Malaysian cuisine is a mixture of Malay food, Chinese and Indian. Chinese and Indian recipes have been adapted over a few hundred years  using local Malay ingredients. Nyonya (or Peranakan) cuisine is the melding of Malay and Chinese food, which came about when Malay women married Chinese immigrants. (OK, it is beautifully more complex than that, but it will have to do for now!) Nyonya cuisine is a glorious fusion and gorgeous balance of fabulous flavours and something that every cook should try at least once in their lives.

There are all sorts of lovely myths about the origins of this dish. I’m not entirely sure who the “kapitan” was but most evidence points to the fact that it was a colloquial name for a community leader or for the heads of mercantile houses, a word introduced by the Portuguese to Malacca and Penang during the 16th and 17th centuries. I suspect this was one of those dishes that was cooked for the “big man”; that it is sour with tamarind speaks of Portuguese tastes too. I am happy to be proved wrong though!

Serves 4
Skill level: Easy

750g boneless chicken breast or thighs, skinned and cut into large bite-sized chunks
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp tamarind paste, dissolved in 2-3 tbsp of boiling water
400ml coconut milk (about 1 tin)
1 tbsp palm or light brown sugar
3 kaffir lime leaves (optional)
fresh coriander, roughly chopped, to serve
steamed rice, to serve
spice paste
6 dried red chillies, soaked in hot water until soft
6 shallots, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 stick of lemongrass, peeled (white parts only), very finely chopped
2cm piece of fresh galangal or ginger, peeled and chopped
4 candlenuts or macadamia nuts
1cm piece of belacan (shrimp paste)
2 tsp ground turmeric


  1. If using a block of belacan (shrimp paste), first wrap in kitchen foil. Heat a small frying pan on high. Toast the belacan for about 1 minute until fragrant and crumbly.
  2. Make the spice paste by combining all the ingredients in a blender and blend to a smooth paste.
  3. Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Fry the spice paste until it has begun to darken and is fragrant.
  4. Add the cinnamon stick and chicken pieces. Stir well to ensure that the chicken is well-coated in the spice paste. Cook for a further 3 minutes.
  5. Add the dissolved tamarind paste, coconut milk and palm sugar. Stir well, adding the kaffir lime leaves. Simmer gently for 15 minutes.
  6. Serve with steamed rice, sprinkled with a little chopped fresh coriander.


  • Some people add a little grated fresh toasted coconut or even desiccated coconut to the curry while it is cooking.
  • If you don’t have tamarind paste (or even tamarind pulp) add fresh lime juice for that wonderful tangy flavour.

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