During the darker early days of South Africa’s history, the Cape was colonized by the Dutch East India Company who required labourers to establish the infrastructure. The people of Indonesia, Malaysia as well as India were highly skilled and were therefore brought to live and work as slaves in the area. These people who later became known as the Cape Malays, brought with them their traditional cooking techniques, adapting recipes by using ingredients commonly found in the Western Cape at that time - mainly deciduous fruits. Though South Africa has many different ethnic groups and cultures, these people were my ancestors and this Cape Malay Chicken Curry is a good example of how a classic Malaysian curry is transformed with the addition of fruit or preserves. It’s served with a deliciously crucial element, a very easy onion and tomato sambal made with punchy raw onion, sugar and malt vinegar (Vinegar is used liberally in Cape Malay Cuisine). I’ve noticed that sweet and sour flavors reign supreme in South Africa, diverse as we are.
Coming back from a recent trip to South Africa, I realized just how integral a good chicken curry is to any social gathering. I watched carefully as my mother made her sambal, the steps taken to ensure a good balance of flavor that perfectly complements the curry and rice. Our people have made this for generations and so it’s done with a sort of graceful ease…We know what we are doing and rarely rely on a recipe. Our hands chop the vegetables to a very old rythm and the sound of a metal spoon stirring the pot is one indication that we are about to taste happiness itself. Even though it is not my typical 15 minute recipe, I hope that you can find some time to make and enjoy this approachable version because it is so very dear to my heart.
A few tips:
Traditionally, whole pieces of chicken is used since the bones impart a wonderful flavor. I’ve made an adjustment by using skinless boneless chicken thigh pieces that are easier to eat. In this case, chicken stock is used instead of water to create more depth of flavor.
The sambal is absolutely important. In their book Cape, Curry and Koesisters by sisters Fatima and Gadija Sydow, they mention that guests usually complain when it’s not on the table. I fully agree and I hope that you make it as well! Malt vinegar can be found at most grocery stores now, and the South African spices and chutney served on the side can both be found on Amazon. I will link those in the ingredient list.
If you are following a low carb diet, the potatoes can easily be replaced by radish or even cauliflower florets. The apricot jam can be replaced with sugar-free apricot jam. Onions, garlic and curry powder usually contain quite a bit of carbs so you can reduce the amounts and serve your curry over strips of green cabbage sautéed in butter with a pinch of nutmeg instead of rice. Delicious. For the sambal, use monkfruit sweetener instead of sugar.
The sambal is best after all the juices are allowed to meld in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. Make it before you start the curry so that it’s ready to serve once everything is done.
Cape Malay Chicken Curry with Onion and Tomato Sambal
Prep Time: 15 minutes | Cook Time: 45 minutes | Serves: 4-6
1 tablespoon neutral oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 tablespoon freshly grated ginger root
1 fresh bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 cardamom pod
2 whole cloves
1 1/2 tablespoons Rajah Curry Powder
1/2 tablespoon yellow curry paste
1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 2 -inch cubes
3 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 teaspoon salt + more to taste
1 teaspoon white pepper
2-3 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup freshly chopped cilantro, divided
2 tablespoons smooth apricot jam
To serve: Mr’s Balls Peach Chutney is a classic condiment that goes very well with any curry!
Onion and Tomato Sambal
1 cup thinly sliced yellow or white onion
1/2 cup thinly sliced persian cucumber
1/2 cup chopped tomato (I use cherry tomato but any variety is fine)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1/3 cup malt vinegar
white sugar to taste (about 4 tablespoons)
Add oil to a heavy bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Sauté onions and green pepper for 2-3 minutes until translucent. If it starts to brown too quickly please reduce your heat and add 2-3 tablespoons of water at a time to continue the cooking process as needed. Add garlic, ginger, whole spices and curry powders/paste, stirring for 1-2 minutes until fragrant.
Place chicken, potatoes, salt and pepper and the pot. Use a spoon to toss chicken and potatoes until coated with spices then add chicken stock, half of the cilantro and the apricot jam. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 30-40 minutes or until potatoes are very soft and sauce thickened. Add remaining cilantro and adjust seasoning. Remove whole spices right before serving over fluffly basmati rice and sambal (recipe follows)
Add all sambal ingredients to a medium bowl and stir to combine. The balance of sweet and sour depends on how you like it, please add enough sugar until you feel it’s reached the correct taste. For me that’s usually 4 tablespoons.