For many years, this dish was not a staple in my cooking repertoire as I grew up eating it only on rare occasions. It was more frequently cooked when my father and his siblings were being raised by their single mother. But while working on this recipe, I marveled at its simplicity on one hand and its profile of complex flavors on the other. Due to its simplicity and relatively quick cooking time, it was served at regular meals as well as for offerings during the anniversary of a death in which favorite dishes of the deceased were offered at the altar as a gesture to honor their loved ones.
Compared with most Nyonya dishes, this quick dish can be easily mastered by anyone. Despite the short list of ingredients, we see the Peranakan penchant for different layers of strong flavor. It is not enough for Peranakans to simply cook the chicken in plain soy sauce, since their palate always craves the heat of red chili peppers and other strongly flavored ingredients. The red onion adds a subtle sweetness that acts as the liaison between the salty soy sauce and the brightness of the lime juice. Serving it with the spicy and pungent condiment, sambal belacan, adds another dimension and complexity to the flavor profile, and is typically how it is eaten at the dinner table.
A posting of this recipe on social media received many reactions from people who shared memories of growing up eating it but have not relished it for many years. It also revealed to me that this cooking technique is not only reserved for chicken, as the posters commented that they enjoyed variations made with fried eggs, fish, eggplant, and even cripsy fried ikan bilis or dried Asian anchovies. It is indeed a versatile sauce that is highly favored among the Peranakans due to its many flavor elements.
Once you have tried this recipe, you may marvel at how wonderful and satisfying it is. It has become a weekly staple for me and also for some of my relatives who are always pinched for time in the kitchen. After a taste of this, you will understand why the Peranakans, both living and deceased, are so fond of this chicken recipe.
Serves 4 to 6
Preparation time: 50 minutes
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 very large (400 grams/14 ounces) red onion, peeled and cut into medium-size vertical slices
2 fresh red chili peppers, seeded and sliced not too finely
4 chicken thighs with drumsticks, or 8 drumsticks, cut into bite-size pieces
1½ teaspoons thick dark soy sauce
5 tablespoons thin soy sauce
1½ cups water
2 tablespoons lime juice
- In a pan on medium-high heat, heat the oil and cook the onion and chili until quite soft, about 4 minutes. Add the chicken pieces and cook for 5 minutes more until no longer pink. Add the dark and light soy sauces and the water. Reduce the heat to medium. Simmer with the lid of the pan ajar for 15 minutes, stirring every few minutes.
- Remove the lid, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook for 15 minutes more while stirring occasionally, to let the sauce reduce—add a bit of water if it reduces too quickly. Taste and adjust the seasoning with light soy sauce. You may remove excess grease from the sauce.
- Add the lime juice just before serving and stir well. Serve with sambal belacan with lime juice added to it.
6 grams/½ teaspoon belacan (shrimp paste), toasted and ground
6 fresh red chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 2 tablespoons paste/sambal oelek
1 teaspoon lime juice, preferably from Kalamansi lime
- If using belacan paste, spoon it onto a piece of aluminum foil, fold it until well sealed, and bake in a toaster oven on 350°F for 5 minutes or until aromatic. If you are using a belacan square, toast it over an open fire until aromatic. Take it outside to cool and to keep the strong smell out of the house.
- In a food processor, purée the chilis with the belacan to a smooth paste. Add salt to taste.
- Serve by squeezing the lime juice into it.
If using wet shrimp paste and sambal oelek:
Put the shrimp paste in a bowl and squeeze a bit of lime juice on it. With the back of the spoon, press the paste into the juice until the mixture is well incorporated. Add the sambal oelek and mix well. Finish with more lime juice and mix well.