top of page

Chicken Curry

Being able to cook a good chicken curry or a gulai khay is like passing a rite of passage in the Nyonya kitchen. It was not the first thing I learnt to cook, but it was the first thing I cooked that impressed anyone.

Because my mum was such a good cook, I had to leave home to learn how to cook! I did try, but my novice attempts never met the standards my family was used to. I admit, it was (and still is) much easier to impress people who have never tasted my mum's cooking.

The chicken curry is a classic dish that used to be cooked for slightly more special occasions than a weeknight dinner. A big family get-together warranted this dish very easily. Every Nyonya will have her own special version of this curry. The curry is delicious with crusty bread or plain steamed rice. It is also served with savoury pancakes like roti jala (laced pancakes; recipe to come).

When I was little, my mum kept our own chickens. She built her own chicken coops, and occasionally I would help her feed them either grains or leftover rice. It seems like a lifetime ago. She would crack open a coconut - which of course had been plucked from the tree in our backyard - grate it and squeeze it for its fresh milk.

My mum would also occasionally grind her own spices using what is called a batu giling. Made from undressed granite, the batu giling is made up of a heavy, large slab and an accompanying rolling pin also in granite. There was a time when some families would hire someone who would go from house to house grinding spices. Generally a woman, she would blend and grind a mixture specific to the type of curry you wanted to cook. At fresh markets in Malaysia today you can still buy freshly ground spices from a spice vendor who will deftly and swiftly spoon a mix of spices for you (spices for a meat curry powder generally is a mix of coriander, chilli, cumin, turmeric, fennel, turmeric, pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and cloves) but the home-visiting apothecary is a long-obsolete métier.

If you're starting to panic, stop. This recipe is my simple version which requires no batu giling and only a quick trip to the supermarket, if you need.

Today we are used to pre-mixed dry spices that we buy in a packet. I grew up not far from a famous spice mill. Whenever we drove past it, I would wind the window down to get a whiff of the aromatic scent. Perhaps this scent today is my Madeleine de Proust.

Every household has their favourite spice mix, if they don’t grind their own. Mine of course is from that spice mill near my hometown. But with Covid, I am grounded and no visiting friends from home means I use whatever I can find. Or grind my own.

I found this recipe for making a curry powder mix, and the aroma did trigger some memories. If you like, you can grind your own mix or use your favourite brand. Very near to where I live in the 5th arrondissement, there are two Asian grocery stores and I found a curry powder mix which is very good although I found it a bit coarse. So I used my mini spice grinder to grind it a notch finer. I have cooked this curry using these two different curry powder mix. You can see the slight difference in the colours of the two curries.

This with home-made curry powder.

I recently made this for my fully-French nephew Glenn, who has nominated this his favourite dish. Coming from this slightly picky eater, that's a huge compliment (disclosure:

he hasn’t tasted much of my mum’s cooking).

So many improvisations can be made here:

  • Use your preferred curry powder or make your own

  • Increase the spice level by adding some cayenne chilli or chilli paste

  • Replace coconut milk with yogurt

  • Increase amount of coconut milk for creamier curry

  • Leave out coconut milk altogether for an aromatic but less rich curry

  • Use chicken bone on or chicken breasts, but adjust cooking time accordingly (if using a mix, put the bone-on chicken first and add breasts later)

The curry leaf is a wonderfully aromatic herb which freezes easily. In Paris there are some Asian supermarkets which sell dried or frozen ones but fresh leaves can be most easily found in Indian grocery stores. You can buy a whole bunch, wash and pat them dry then throw them into your freezer. I often leave them out when I can't find them.

Chicken Curry Gulai Khay


Serves 6 to 8

Prep time 20 mins/Cook Time 30 mins/Total Time 50 mins

  • 4 large potatoes (about 600 g), peeled and cut in large chunks, parboiled

  • 3 to 4 tbsps cooking oil

  • 6 to 8 curry leaves (optional)

  • 1 cinnamon stick

  • 3 whole cardamoms

  • 4 cloves

  • 2 star anise

  • 2 tbsps (20 g) curry powder, mixed with 2 tbsps water

  • 1 kg chicken (dark or light meat or both, cut into large pieces)

  • 400 ml water

  • 250 ml coconut milk

  • salt to taste

pounded/blended ingredients

  • 6 large shallots, peeled

  • 4 to 6 cloves garlic, peeled

  • 2 stalks lemongrass, white part only

  • 1 tbsp water


  1. Put a pot of water to boil.

  2. Peel potatoes, cut into large chunks, boil for ten minutes.

  3. While potatoes are boiling, peel and cut into rough sizes shallots, garlic and lemongrass. Blend finely with 1 tbsp of water (If using a mortar and pestle to pound, the added water isn’t necessary).

  4. Heat 3 to 4 tbsps oil in a heavy bottomed or clay pot. Add the blended ingredients, and sizzle over medium heat, about 5 minutes.

  5. Add the curry leaves (optional), cinnamon stick, cardamoms, cloves and star anise.

  6. Then add the curry powder which has been mixed into a paste with the water. Continue to stir and fry this mix until it starts to release some oil and smells fragrant, about another 5 minutes.

  7. Add the chicken pieces, and stir so that they are evenly coated with the spice mix. Add water, mix well, increase heat and bring to the boil.

  8. Lower temperature, cover and simmer until chicken is almost cooked (about 15 minutes for bone-on chicken pieces and about 8 for the breasts).

  9. Stir in the coconut milk and diced parboiled potatoes. Simmer gently another 5 minutes.

  10. Serve hot with steamed rice or crusty bread.


bottom of page